At Last, Violence Against Women Act Lets Tribes Prosecute Non-Native Domestic Abusers

03/06/2015 05:52 pm ET | Updated Mar 06, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- Two years after Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, Native American tribes can finally take advantage of one of the law's most significant updates: a provision that allows tribal courts to investigate and prosecute non-Native men who abuse Native women on reservations.

Starting Saturday, tribes can claim jurisdiction over non-Native men who commit crimes of domestic violence, dating violence or who violate a protection order against a victim who lives on tribal land. Until now, that jurisdiction has fallen to federal or state law enforcement, who are often hours away from reservations and lack the resources to respond. The result has effectively allowed non-Native abusers immunity from punishment.

For the first time, tribal law enforcement will now have the ability to intervene.

"I want to encourage all tribal governments to get this law on their books," said Juana Majel of the National Congress of American Indians. "On most reservations, there are a handful of bad actors who have figured out how to slip between jurisdictional boundaries. They need to get the message. If they continue to assault our women, we will prosecute and put them in jail."

There are epidemic levels of domestic violence on tribal lands. Three out of five Native women have been assaulted in their lifetimes, and 34 percent will be raped, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Getting to the heart of the VAWA provision, 59 percent of assaults against Native women take place at or near a private residence, and, as of 2010, 59 percent of Native women were married to non-Native men.

On some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average.

House Republicans nearly torpedoed the entire VAWA bill in 2013 because they opposed the new protections for Native victims of abuse. Vice President Joe Biden, an original Senate sponsor of the 1994 law, stepped in and negotiated directly with then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Congress ultimately reauthorized VAWA, but with Democrats providing the bulk of votes for it.

Three tribes have already been granted the new jurisdiction as part of a 2014 pilot project authorized by VAWA. Those tribes -- the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and the Tulalip Tribes -- had to submit applications laying out their proposed codes and procedures, and were approved by the U.S. attorney general. To date, they have charged a total of 26 offenders.

As of Saturday, tribal courts may take advantage of the new authority with only the approval of their tribal council. The courts must provide people with the same rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

"This is a major step forward to protect the safety of Native people, and we thank all members of Congress for passing the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 and recognizing tribal authority,” said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

In related news, Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery on Friday gave the green light to two tribes to move forward immediately with the new jurisdiction. The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, are both large tribes in rural areas with larger populations, which means they can be a model for other large rural tribes interested in rolling out the new authority.

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