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Making Native Communities Safer

When President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on March 7, 2013 (VAWA 2013), he stated that “tribal governments have an inherent right to protect their people, and all women deserve the right to live free from fear.” 

Two years later, we have reached a significant milestone.  As of March 7, 2015, all tribes that meet certain criteria are now eligible, under VAWA 2013, to investigate and prosecute certain non-Indian defendants who commit acts of domestic violence or dating violence, or violate certain protection orders in Indian Country.  This is an important step to address the overall public-safety challenges in Indian Country.

Women in Native communities are victims of domestic violence at higher rates than the general population, and often at the hands of non-Indian men. Unfortunately, many of those crimes went unpunished in the past because tribal courts did not have jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian defendants. VAWA 2013 represented a significant step in the right direction. The Act recognized tribes’ inherent power to protect their people by exercising special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over certain defendants, regardless of their Indian or non-Indian status. In December 2014, the President signed a measure to extend VAWA’s tribal provisions to Alaska. 

In 2014, the Department of Justice had granted pilot-project requests to three tribes to use special criminal jurisdiction—the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, and the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon. Two additional tribes—the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota and the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana— recently received pilot-project approval, as well.

VAWA 2013 also includes provisions to ensure that defendants have the opportunity for a full and fair trial.  In order for a tribe to exercise its authority, it must extend due-process rights, such as providing access to an attorney to the defendant.

This Administration has witnessed a new dawn for restorative justice and a stronger nation-to-nation relationship to protect our tribal nations, and the implementation of these critical provisions represents a victory for Indian Country.  As VAWA champion and Councilwoman for the Tulalip Tribes Deborah Parker stated, “We are the hearts of our Nations and will continue to stand tall to protect our sacred way of life. Today we can finally say that tribal nations can and will exercise our inherent sovereign power to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence both Indians and non-Indians who assault Indian spouses or dating partners or violate a protection order in Indian country.”

Cecilia Muñoz is Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council. Tina Tchen is Assistant to the President and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.