The Justice Department announced Thursday that it has chosen three American Indian tribes for a pilot project in which they will be authorized, for the first time, to prosecute non-Indian men for certain crimes of domestic violence against Indian women.
The tribes — the Pascua Yaqui of Arizona, the Tulalip of Washington state and the Umatilla of Oregon — will be the first of the nation’s federally recognized 566 Indian tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction over domestic and dating violence when a non-Indian man is involved. The authority was granted last year in an amendment to the 2013 Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.
“This represents a significant victory for public safety and the rule of law, and a momentous step forward for tribal sovereignty and self-determination,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. Holder said Native women and girls face a “shocking and unacceptably” high rate of violence.
Although the new tribal authority for all tribes will not go into effect until March 2015, the law granted Holder the authority to allow some tribes to investigate and prosecute certain crimes against women earlier under a pilot project.
Associate Attorney General Tony West called the department’s actions “a historic turning point” for justice on tribal lands.
“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 said. “We believe that by certifying certain tribes to exercise jurisdiction over these crimes, we will help decrease domestic and dating violence in Indian Country, strengthen tribal capacity to administer justice and control crime, and ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable for their criminal behavior.”
In 1978, the Supreme Court prohibited all Indian tribes from exercising criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian defendants, including in the case of domestic offenses committed by non-Indian abusers against their Indian spouses and dating partners.
Under the court decision, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, even a violent crime that was committed by a non-Indian husband against his Indian wife in their home on a reservation could not be prosecuted by the tribe, which has jurisdiction for crimes committed on the reservation.
Under the pilot project, the three tribes can begin prosecuting certain domestic violence crimes involving non-Native men that are committed on or after Feb. 20.