Domestic Violence

Short Funds Crimp Tribal Women's Safety Law

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A federal law passed in July was supposed to benefit American Indian and Alaskan Native women who are disproportionately vulnerable to abuse. But tight funding and immunity for non-Indian men are two major limitations.

(WOMENSENEWS)--The passage of a U.S. law last summer was intended, in part, to curb violence against American Indian and Alaskan Native women.

But underfunding and legal limitations have made it largely irrelevant, said Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Creek Nation, Okla., and a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.

"I don't think there's been change for Indian women in the past 500 years," Deer said in a recent phone interview. "I don't think we've begun to turn it around yet."

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The Tribal Law and Order Act, passed in July, grants tribal courts--weak but autonomous--the right to sentence Indian criminal offenders to three years in prison, not just one. It also provides for stronger and larger ranks of tribal police and technical assistance for tribal courts' investigations and prosecutions.

Tribal courts still can't try or prosecute non-Indian men though. Indian women can take a non-Native man to court in the U.S., not just tribal courts. But between 2005 and 2010, federal officials declined to prosecute 50 percent of all alleged crimes in Indian country, including 75 percent of alleged sex crimes against women and children, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians.

That leaves a major legal stumbling block, since non-Indian men perpetrate more than 80 percent of the acts of violence against Indian women, according to Amnesty International.

The London-based rights group estimates that 1-in-3 Indian women will suffer rape in their lifetimes. Less than 1-in-5 non-Native American women living in the United States will be raped at some point, according to Amnesty.

Brenda Hill is co-director of the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, which provides technical assistance to 28 organizations in the state. She said that non-Indian men abuse women purposefully only in Indian country to evade a law that only allows tribal police and courts to arrest and prosecute Indian perpetrators.

General understanding of this legal reality similarly leads some Indian men to drag women onto federal land to abuse them there, Hill said.

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