Law and Order
July 21st was a landmark day for Native Americans, and all those who are concerned about their lives. Last week, the Indian Arts and Crafts Amendments Act (H.R. 725) passed by an overwhelming majority in the House (326 Yeas) and will now be signed into law by President Obama. While the name of this bill sounds relatively inconsequential, it is actually far-reaching legislation, which will make a profound difference in the lives of tens of thousands of Native Americans, especially Native American women.
H.R. 725 includes the Tribal Law and Order Act, which aims to reform the justice system by establishing accountability measures for federal agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting reservation crime, and by providing tribes with additional tools to combat crime locally. President Obama greeted passage of the bill asserting, “The federal government’s relationship with tribal governments, its obligations under treaty and law, and our values as a nation require that we do more to improve public safety in tribal communities and this act will help us achieve that.”
How dire is the situation on America’s reservations? Tribal communities nationwide face violent crime rates 2.5 times higher than non-Native American communities. While a staggering one in six American women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime, one in three Native American women will be raped. Underlying this problem is the terrible fact that 80% of rapes involve non-native perpetrators, and tribal authorities are powerless in these situations because only federal prosecutors can prosecute crimes on tribal lands. According to the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorneys decline to prosecute 75 percent of Indian rape cases every year. Even more frustrating, Tribal law enforcement is also hamstrung because even when the offender is Native American, the law says that they can not prosecute felonies like rape and they can only imprison an offender for up to one year.
In light of these horrifying statistics, it is with enthusiasm that advocates can greet the passage of the Tribal Law and Order amendment, which will improve evidence sharing between tribal justice officials and federal agencies, extend sentencing authorities in qualified tribal courts from one to three years, deputize tribal police to enforce federal law, and improve training and procedures related to domestic and sexual violence cases. Hopefully, the passage of this bill will translate into fewer sexual assault cases as offenders are held accountable for their disgusting treatment of Native women.
For those interested in learning more about violence against women on reservations, NPR has done a two-part series on the topic titled “Rape Cases On Indian Lands Go Uninvestigated” and “Legal Hurdles Stall Rape Cases on Native Lands.” In addition, Current TV’s show Vanguard filmed an episode “Rape on the Reservation,” in which a correspondent travels to Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota where she interviews a tribal resident who lost her teenage daughter when sexual assault and violence escalated to murder.
It’s about time that the federal government addressed the plight of Native American women and the Tribal Law and Order Act demonstrates a commendable effort toward curbing sexual violence. The real success will be measured, however, not by well-meaning legislation, but by hard statistics. Congress has done its part, now Native American and federal enforcement agencies must work together toward decreasing that heinous one in three rape statistic to zero.