Native American Women Finally Gain More Protection From Rape and Abuse Thanks to VAWA

Written by Tara Culp-Ressler

Thanks to the latest reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the U.S. government is beginning to take steps to strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence within American Indian tribes. On Thursday, the Justice Department announced that three tribes will participate in a pilot program that will allow them to prosecute non-Native­ men for abuse against Native American women, an initiative that will eventually be expanded to additional tribes.

There are 566 federally-recognized Native American tribes across the country. But since a 1978 Supreme Court ruling prohibits tribes from exercising criminal jurisdiction over outside defendants, they’ve been hampered from going after perpetrators of domestic assault. Even if a woman called the tribe’s police chief to report an incident of domestic abuse, there was nothing law enforcement could do if the aggressor wasn’t a member of the tribe.

“Can you imagine responding to call where there is clear evidence of a crime committed by an individual and you cannot arrest them? I think the community felt cheated,” Michael Valenzuela, the police chief of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, told the LA Times. “It made police officers and victim advocates feel powerless.”

Under VAWA, that’s about to change. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, and the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon will be able to expand their justice systems to crack down on domestic abusers.

“These critical pilot projects will facilitate the first tribal prosecutions of non-Indian perpetrators in recent times,” Attorney General Eric Holder explained in a statement. “This represents a significant victory for public safety and the rule of law, and a momentous step forward for tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”

Sexual crimes are a huge problem on Native American reservations, where nearly 40 percent of women report they have experienced some type of domestic violence. And an estimated 80 percent of Native American rape survivors say they were assaulted by non-Indian men, since the current legal system essentially empowers serial rapists who know they can get away with it.

Nonetheless, the expanded protections for Native American women were a sticking point in the fight to renew VAWA last year. Republicans resisted approving the latest version of legislation because of its provisions relating to LGBT, immigrant, and Native American women — and even after brokering compromises for the first two groups, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) dug in his heels against giving tribes more authority to go after rapists. It took a year of partisan infighting to finally approve the current version of the landmark legislation.

Other tribes will have the option of participating in the new pilot program, too. Their requests to opt in will be approved by Associate Attorney General Tony West, who congratulated Native American leaders on a historic step forward.

“The old jurisdictional scheme failed to adequately protect the public — particularly Native women — with too many crimes going unprosecuted and unpunished amidst escalating violence in Indian Country,” West noted. “Our actions today mark a historic turning point.”

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

David C
David C1 years ago


Sue H
Sue H1 years ago

I would rather have seen an update about the pilot projects and news of other tribes joining than this two year old re posting. :(

Richard Anonymous

Oh my gosh, I had no idea that such a jurisdictional loophole existed. I can see how some men would exploit that loophole if they knew about it. There should be no place where men can go to evade punishment for sex crime. Ideally, there should even be international agreements in place that either return men to the nations where they committed sex crimes so that they can be punished or punish the men in the nations to which they have fled -- and this whole world would be a safer and more respectful place for women if the nations of the world agreed to adopt the universal approach of providing imprisonment and whipping for all men found guilty of sexually abusing a woman or child. This approach would cleanse the world of much sex crime and improve the character and conduct of many men.

Judith Emerson
Judith Emerson4 years ago

Thank You! Now let's see real enforcement!!!!!

Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobets4 years ago


Rainbow W.
.4 years ago

Actually I disagree Susan W. Violence on the rez has nothing to do with stereotypes. It comes from the fact that men on and off the rez know the laws [or lack of] and boundaries. I knew women who had been dragged from their homes on the Alabama Coushatta outside the Rez line and raped [by a tribe member]. He knew the ensuing red tape [pun intended] would leave him free as a bird. Nonmembers do this too.

Part of it is state and federal governments fault, imposing certain jurisdictional regulations. Others are men on the rez doing everything they can to impede the law and protect themselves, their fathers, sons and buddies from prosecution. That leads to more violence. You think a decent man will stand by after his daughter has been raped? They wind up with a nice hole gracing their skull and there’s that red tape.

They could investigate and prosecute before. It wasn’t easy. Laws like these clear up the mess. 28 U.S.C. § 1362, 8 U.S.C. § 1152 [] governs native law. Depending on tribe, state, jurisdiction, deputization and type of crime they could investigate and prosecute. But getting each office, agency, and the public to cooperate is a major task. Many of our people still don’t trust law enforcement.

June Bostock
June Bostock4 years ago


Gloria Maria Ortega Zuina

Thank you for sharing. Glad that this is moving in the right direction. But much more needs to be done to protect these women and girls.