Congress has just given Indian Country greater authority to police its own, and that may be good news for women. the Tribal Law and Order Act, which was signed by President Obama last week, expands the authority of tribal criminal justice agencies to prosecute crimes within their own territory, rather than relying on the notoriously spotty federal authorities. While the emphasis is on policing, advocates have hailed the bill as a step toward alleviating the often hidden epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence against Native women.
Native communities generally face higher risks of violent crime, but violence against women is especially devastating. Amnesty International reported in 2007 that the risk of rape and sexual assault was 2.5 times higher for indigenous women than for other women. Moreover, nearly 9 out of 10 perpetrators were non-native*—a damning reminder of how racism continues to expose women to abuse and exploitation.
After the passage of the bill, Amnesty stated that the measure would eventually “decrease the high levels of rape and finally provide Native women with effective recourse if they are sexually assaulted. In short, this legislation stands to curtail the impunity that allows rapists to prey on Native women like vultures.”
Under the bill, tribal court systems are allowed to raise the maximum sentence from one year to three. Along with that authority comes a responsibility to provide court-appointed defense counsel.
The bill specifically addresses sexual assault by mandating that that tribal and federal officers receive special training for dealing with victims and investigating sexual assault.
Historically, the lack of protection from law enforcement has woven a cloak of silence around many native women. According to a 2004 report from the National Research Center on Domestic Violence:
Some problems with the criminal justice system are common to many victims, especially victims from other U.S. minority groups. These include: fear of stigma following public charges, fear of being accused of a crime themselves, and hesitation to accuse a fellow tribal member and make him confront a racist legal system in addition to his crime. The complicated relationships among tribal, state, and Federal laws create unique issues, however. For example, if the perpetrator is non-Indian and the assault was committed on reservation land, jurisdictional problems may arise because reservation authorities cannot prosecute a non-Indian and off-reservation authorities are often reluctant to get involved in all but the most severe reservation crimes (Snyder-Joy, 1995). Multiple legal jurisdictions complicate many offenses, including sexual assault and rape, that occur on reservation lands and can hamper the legal process even beyond what is usually seen in other jurisdictions (Millian, 2000).
From a human-rights perspective, Amnesty has highlighted the racial justice dimension to the issue: in addition to empowering tribal authorities to check sexual violence, it will provide more resources and training for victim services. Charon Asetoyer, chair of Amnesty International USA’s Native Advisory Council and longtime advocate on women’s issues in Indian Country, pointed out the ongoing need for sexual assault nurse examiners to help investigate sexual violence incidents: “Currently there are no standardized sexual assault protocols within the Indian Health Service, meaning that victims of sexually violent crimes may not be given rape kits that obtain critical evidence to prosecute perpetrators.”
But ramping up the local police presence in Indian Country won’t make a dent in the underlying crisis—a vacuum of adequate social supports for survivors. They’re typically isolated by rural geography, poverty and chronic social and economic problems, on and off the reservation, according to a recent Urban Indian Health Institute Report. Meanwhile, Native women overall are disproportionately impacted by federal and state restrictions on abortion, since they tend to be more dependent on publicly funded health programs such as Indian Health Services and Medicaid.
There’s often a subtle tension between enforcing the law and protecting survivors. Cangleska, an advocacy organization for native survivors of abuse and assault, has pioneered a holistic service model, profiled in the 2009 Colorlines Innovators issue, prioritizing collective healing for both victims and perpetrators within tribal communities.
The Department of Justice has offered grant money to tribes to strengthen resources for sexual assault survivors, emphasizing not policing but rehabilitation initiatives like “housing, childcare services, transportation, renovation of emergency shelters and hiring personnel to provide and support the direct services to victims.”
More effective prosecutions can help alleviate the most regressive aspects of the tribal government system. Activists can now look to the other systemic changes needed to treat and prevent gender-based violence—a paradigm shift in Indian country that moves women out of the box of victimhood gives them a real voice in how they, and their violators, are treated.
*Note: change in terminology for crime statistics: For perpetrators, nine-in-ten refers to non-natives, and the victimization rate is also a comparison between native and non-native women, according to Amnesty.