New Laws Provide Limited Solutions to Violence Against Women on Tribal Lands

On June 13, 2014, US President Barack Obama visited Native American territory for the first time since he became president. His visit highlighted the legal challenges and loopholes that allow many perpetrators to escape prosecution for violence against women in the 566 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States. Native American women experience exceptionally high rates of violence: three in five are victims of domestic violence, and one in three will be sexually assaulted or raped in her lifetime. Nearly 86 percent of rape and sexual assault victims in Native American and Alaskan tribes report that the perpetrator was not a member of their tribe.
President Obama has signed two laws within the past four years that empower tribes to improve security for Native American women: the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Re-Authorization Act of 2013 and the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. Both laws enhance tribal courts’ ability to prosecute perpetrators of violence against women by expanding tribal jurisdiction over non-members and increasing law enforcement support. However, the VAWA Re-Authorization Act has been criticized for its limited impact: it excludes approximately 200 Alaskan Native tribes, and expands tribal jurisdiction only over non-members who have significant ties to the tribal land or victim, failing to address violence committed by strangers.
Although a pilot of the new tribal prosecution protocol was launched with three tribes in February 2014, the law will not take full effect for all tribes until March 2015. Implementation may be further delayed or even declined by tribes that are unable to ensure non-member defendents will be treated fairly by the tribal justice system.
Until VAWA goes into full effect, most tribes will continue to rely on the federal court system to file protective orders and prosecute non-member perpetrators of violence against women. Because of heavy caseloads and logistical challenges in prosecuting cases on remote Native American reservations, federal courts decline to prosecute approximately 40 to 70 percent of domestic violence claims brought by tribal members against non-members.
Compiled from: Hudetz, Mary, New Federal Laws Help, but Still Don’t Fully Protect Native American Women from ViolenceThe Washington Post (June 13, 2014); Brodey, Sam, It's About Time for Obama's First Visit to American Indian LandMother Jones (June 11, 2014);Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Re-authorization 2013 and Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA), United States Department of Justice Tribal Justice and Safety (accessed June 24, 2014); Horowitz, Sari, New Law Offers Protection to Abused Native American Women, The Washington Post (February 8, 2014).