UNITED STATES: Violence Against Women Act Finally lets Native American Tribes Prosecute Non-Tribal Members, and it's about Damn Time

Monday, February 10, 2014
North America
United States of America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

For those of you who have blocked out memory of the long battle to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act that waged throughout 2012 and into 2013, one of the objections that obstructionist Republicans had was the fact that the act would allow Native American tribes to prosecute non-tribal members for domestic violence and rape. Which would undermine the stability of the nation or interfere with America's ability to continue in our proud tradition of genocide or something. Well, the day has finally come when Native Americans can exercise this new right, and I have seen no decrease in either stability or racism. So…hooray?

In all seriousness, though, this is a hugely important day. Though Native tribes are able to enforce their own laws among tribal members on their reservations, crimes committed on reservations by non-tribal members — even violent crimes committed against Native Americans — can only be prosecuted by federal authorities. Tribes can pursue civil cases, but these can only amount to fines, which offenders have little incentive to pay. Which presents a problem since crimes such as rape and domestic violence don't always rise to the level of a federal crime, and therefore often go completely unpunished on reservations.

Native American women suffer from appallingly high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. They are the only racial demographic in the United States who are more likely to be assaulted by a member of a different race (specifically white men), rather than their own. Exact figures are hard to come by because women often don't report attacks for the simple reason they know nothing can be done, but the rates are probably at least twice the national average.

As of today, though, three tribes are able to prosecute non-native offenders, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, and the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon, with more to come in March. It will be the first time since the 1978 Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe that tribes will be able to execute this right.

So I'm going to repeat: It's About Damn Time.