United States: Native American Tribes Use New Authority to Combat Domestic Violence on Tribal Lands

On February 20, 2014, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona joined the Tulalip Tribe of Washington state and the Umatilla Tribe of Oregon in qualifying for a U.S. Justice Department pilot program that allows tribes to prosecute non-members for acts of domestic violence committed on tribal lands. This program is an early roll-out of new authority granted to Native American Tribes under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) amendments of 2013. Domestic violence is a serious problem in tribal communities, with Native American women suffering from domestic violence at twice the rate of women of other races. Before passage of VAWA, tribes were unable to prosecute nonmembers in tribal courts, or issue protective orders for victims of domestic violence, even when the crimes were committed on tribal lands.

This restriction on tribal jurisdiction meant that tribes were often required to prosecute domestic violence cases in U.S. federal courts, including requests for protective orders against non-members who abuse tribal women. This resulted in federal courts declining to prosecute 40 to 70 percent of domestic violence claims brought by tribal members against nonmembers, creating a jurisdicitional loophole that left Native American Women vulnerable to domestic abuse and absolved many non-Indian perpetrators of accountability for their crimes.

Under the 2013 amendments to VAWA, tribal courts will have jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators who live or are employed on tribal lands, or are married to or dating a member of the tribe, for domestic-violence related crimes they commit within tribal boundaries. The VAWA amendments, allowing for special tribal jurisdiction in cases of domestic violence, recognize the important interests Native American Tribes have in protecting their members from domestic violence. Tribes must meet certain requirements to exercise this jurisdiction, including providing adequate counsel to defendants and ensuring that juries are representative of members and nonmembers in the tribal community. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe will meet VAWA’s requirements by allowing nonmembers who live and work on tribal lands to take part as jurors. This pilot program will have significant implications for the 566 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. and for Native American victims of domestic violence, particularly when the VAWA amendments are fully implemented in 2015.

Compiled from: McNamara, Patrick, Pascua Yaqui gain added power to prosecute some non-IndiansArizona Daily Star (February 10, 2014); Horowitz, Sari, 3 Tribes Authorized to Prosecute Non-native American Men in Domestic Violence Cases, Washington Post (February 6, 2014).