Thanks to the latest reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the U.S. government is beginning to take steps to strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence within American Indian tribes. On Thursday, the Justice Department announced that three tribes will participate in a pilot program that will allow them to prosecute non-Native men for abuse against Native American women, an initiative that will eventually be expanded to additional tribes.
There are 566 federally-recognized Native American tribes across the country. But, since a 1978 Supreme Court ruling prohibits tribes from exercising criminal jurisdiction over outside defendants, they’ve been hampered from going after perpetrators of domestic assault. Even if a woman called the tribe’s police chief to report an incident of domestic abuse, there was nothing law enforcement could do if the aggressor wasn’t a member of the tribe.
“Can you imagine responding to call where there is clear evidence of a crime committed by an individual and you cannot arrest them? I think the community felt cheated,” Michael Valenzuela, the police chief of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, told the LA Times. “It made police officers and victim advocates feel powerless.”
Under VAWA, that’s about to change. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, and the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon will be able to expand their justice systems to crack down on domestic abusers.
“These critical pilot projects will facilitate the first tribal prosecutions of non-Indian perpetrators in recent times,” Attorney General Eric Holder explained in a statement. “This represents a significant victory for public safety and the rule of law, and a momentous step forward for tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”
Sexual crimes are a huge problem on Native American reservations, where nearly 40 percent of women report they have experienced some type of domestic violence. And an estimated 80 percent of Native American rape survivors say they were assaulted by non-Indian men, since the current legal system essentially empowers serial rapists who know they can get away with it.
Nonetheless, the expanded protections for Native American women were a sticking point in the fight to renew VAWA last year. Republicans resisted approving the latest version of legislation because of its provisions relating to LGBT, immigrant, and Native American women — and even after brokering compromises for the first two groups, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) dug in his heels against giving tribes more authority to go after rapists. It took a year of partisan infighting to finally approve the current version of the landmark legislation.
Other tribes will have the option of participating in the new pilot program, too. Their requests to opt in will be approved by Associate Attorney General Tony West, who congratulated Native American leaders on a historic step forward.
“The old jurisdictional scheme failed to adequately protect the public — particularly Native women — with too many crimes going unprosecuted and unpunished amidst escalating violence in Indian Country,” West noted. “Our actions today mark a historic turning point.”