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November 26, 2014

New law addresses domestic violence on Indian reservations

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On Indian reservations, where domestic violence is a widespread issue, a recent law change will allow more survivors to come forward and receive justice.

Native American women face higher levels of violence than the general population. One in three Native women has been raped and three out of five will be the victims of domestic violence in their lifetimes.

But tribal courts, which are tasked with enforcing laws on reservations, do not always prosecute these crimes. The courts cannot prosecute non-Native people, who commit the majority of sexual assaults against Native women on reservations.

And although federal attorneys can try non-Native people for crimes on reservations, they are often far from where those incidents occur, which means that many crimes go unaddressed.

“It creates this place where you have a category of people on Indian reservations who are essentially above the law,” explained Theresa Pouley, chief judge on the Tulalip Reservation Tribal Court in Washington.

Lisa Brunner, a Native American woman and rape survivor who now advocates for domestic violence survivors, said she never tried to report the crimes against her.

“I knew nothing would ever happen. I knew nothing would be done,” she said.

The rules governing how tribal courts handle crimes by non-Natives on reservations were laid out in a Supreme Court decision in 1978. Last year, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act with an inclusion granting tribal courts authority to try a limited number of domestic and dating violence crimes by non-Natives. The revision will take full effect in March 2015.

Critics of the new system, including Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, say that tribal courts should not have jurisdiction over non-Natives and that federal lawyers should be more active in cases of domestic abuse.

But Pouley said the change will empower more people to report violence and hold perpetrators accountable.


Warm up questions
  1. What is domestic violence? How is it different from other violence? Why might someone stay in a relationship where domestic violence occurs?
  2. Who is being described when we use the term Native American?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why would Native American reservations have courts that only allow them to try their own tribal community and not regular U.S. citizens? What are the risks and benefits to this?
  2. Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, sometimes called VAWA, and included a new provision granting tribal courts jurisdiction over a limited number of domestic and dating violence crimes committed by non-Indians on reservations. Specifically, it:
  • Only covers domestic and dating violence
  • Does not include assault by a stranger or rape

How does this law support the tribal community’s ability to serve justice to assault victims? In what ways is it limiting? Why do you think law makers did not include assault or rape by a stranger? Do you think it should be included now? Why or why not?

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