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Violence Against Native American Women 

Navajo Girl

Studies indicate that Native American women experience the highest rates of violence of any ethnic or racial group in the United States.  In addition to high rates of domestic and intimate partner violence, it’s estimated that at least one in three Native American women will experience sexual assault during her lifetime compared to the national average of one in five.  And while these crimes are distinct, the same factors that make this population increasingly vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual assault also put them at risk of being trafficked.

This shameful situation is further denigrated by a lack of recognition of tribal judicial authority and a lack of funding for both effective law enforcement and prevention within Native communities, both on and off the reservation.  Into this vacuum comes the Tribal Law and Order Act under H.R. 725, which President Barack Obama signed into law last week.

Authored and introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, it’s being touted as a solution (albeit belated) to addressing the centuries’ worth of injustice and public safety challenges faced by Native American communities across some 326 reservations nationwide.

In 2007, Amnesty International reported in “Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA” that the risk of rape and sexual assault was nearly three times higher than the national average for Native women. This bill is an important legislative step in working towards a stronger response to violence against women. It requires tribal and federal officers to receive specialized training on how to interview victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also requires reservation clinics to standardize and implement sexual assault response protocols similar to SART, which would guarantee access to rape kits and crisis counseling.

This piece of legislation also expands the sentencing authority of tribal courts under the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) from one to three years in jail, allocates funding for increased capacity of tribal law enforcement, and establishes accountability measures for federal agencies that have previously lacked either the capacity or political will to prosecute cases.

That said, it does very little to untangle the complex weave of jurisdictional issues specific to Indian Country and nothing to enhance tribal authority in prosecuting non-Native perpetrators, who commit over 86 percent of all rape or sexual assault cases against Native women, according to the US Department of Justice. One can only imagine that when the perpetrators of violence against Native American women are non-natives that the impact of the experience is both spiritually and psychologically much more traumatic.

While the issue of implementation has yet to be seen, the federal government could do more to empower tribal governments with the authority to better protect their community. Contact your members of Congress and United States Attorneys’ Offices and ask them to prioritize the prosecution of criminal cases from Indian Country.

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