At Last, Congress Stops Shielding Domestic Abusers on Reservations

When was the last time you heard about a strong bipartisan vote in Congress for the good of our country? Happily, that happened last week when the U.S. Senate voted 78-22 to extend the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the U.S. House followed suit on a 286-123 vote. A contested, but ultimately won, piece of this legislation was domestic violence protection for Native American women.

Native American women have been denied equal access to justice. For decades, American Indian tribes were the only type of government in America without jurisdiction to combat certain types of domestic violence in their communities — even though the U.S. Constitution, hundreds of treaties, federal statutes and court cases affirm that Indian tribes are sovereign governments.That lack of power contributed to an on-going epidemic of domestic violence against Native women that this new legislation will help prevent.

Formerly, tribes relied exclusively on remote federal officials (and state officials in some instances) to investigate and prosecute violent crimes committed by non-Indians against Native women. Consequently, many cases went uninvestigated and violent criminals walked free to continue their violence with impunity.

When Congress renewed VAWA in 2005, they recognized that the federal government has a trust responsibility to assist tribes in safeguarding the lives of American Indian women. But the sad reality for years after was that the federal reach went far beyond the federal grasp, leaving many Native American women without the legal protection they needed. U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute more than half of the violent crimes that occurred on reservations. Fully, 67 percent of those declined cases involved sexual abuse.[7]

Most Montanans favor local solutions for local problems. That is the objective of the final version of the 2013 VAWA that President Obama will sign into law. It will effectively extend into Indian Country the two-decade old law that has already helped shield millions of women from abuse and helped reduce national rates of domestic violence.

Kudos go to those House Republicans who rejected the weaker version of VAWA crafted by their own leaders, which would have undermined the authority of tribal courts to prosecute a non-Indian for domestic violence — even if that person lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member. Instead, they joined the House Democrats to close the jurisdictional gap. That means that non-Indian men who batter their Indian wives or girlfriends will be far less likely to go unpunished. As is the case everywhere else within U.S. boundaries, local justice officials will be empowered as the most appropriate authorities to respond to this violence and punish and deter criminals who choose to live and commit crimes on tribal lands.

Although this legislation is a step forward for American Indian women and the tangled mess of the Tribal-Federal Trust Relationship, more must be done. A shift in cultural perspectives and resources available to American Indian women is necessary to make real progress towards preventing domestic violence, not just a legal deterrent. Those preventative measures are the responsibility of Montanans.

  • 34% of American Indian and Alaska Native women are raped in their lifetimes.[1]
  • Nationally, about 17% of women experience a completed or attempted rape.[2]
  • 39% of American Indian and Alaska Native women are subjected to domestic violence in their lifetimes.[3]
  • Nationally, about 25% of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime[4]
  • Non-Indians commit 88% of all violent crimes against Native women.[5]
  • On some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.[6]

[1] Congressional findings in the Tribal Law & Order Act of 2010, 25 USC 2801 et. seq. (2010).
[3] Ibid.
[5] Patricia Tjaden & Nancy Thoenne, U.S. Department of Justice, Prevalence, Incidence, and
Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women
Survey 22 (2000).
[6] National Institute of Justice Analysis of Death Certificates.
[7] U.S. Government Accountability Office, U.S. Department of Justice Declinations of Indian Country Criminal Matters, Report No. GAO-11-167R, at 3 (2010).