For Abused Native American Women, New Law Provides A 'Ray Of Hope' : Code Switch Starting Thursday, three American Indian tribes can prosecute non-Indians for some domestic violence crimes. The change stems from a provision included in the Violence Against Women Act.

For Abused Native American Women, New Law Provides A 'Ray Of Hope'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Today, three Native American tribes are changing how they administer justice. For almost 40 years, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling has barred tribes from prosecuting non-American Indian defendants. But a new program now allows some non-Indian defendants to be tried in domestic abuse cases. It's a result of last year's reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on the first tribe selected to exercise this authority.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: For three years, Deborah Parker flew back and forth between Washington state and Washington, D.C. She's the vice chair of the Tulalip tribes, located north of Seattle; and she remembers going to the nation's capital to give speeches, knock on doors.

DEBORAH PARKER: You feel like - almost war, or you're going to war. (Laughter) You've got to go to battle, and you have to convince a lot of people that Native women are worth protecting.

WANG: And that protection, Parker was convinced, had to come from Congress. So she pushed for legislation allowing American Indian tribes to prosecute non-Indian defendants in domestic violence cases. About 4 out of every 10 women of American Indian or Alaskan Native descent have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by intimate partner; an alarming statistic from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that Parker knows all too well from growing up on the reservation.

PARKER: We didn't have a strong police presence when I was younger. Even calling the police - often, they didn't respond. When they did, they would say, oh, it's not our jurisdiction, sorry. And prosecutors wouldn't show up.

WANG: Jurisdiction is the key word here. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that tribal governments have no jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Native Americans on tribal land. Instead, tribes have to rely on federal prosecutors to take on such cases, and prosecutors have not always been able or willing to consistently pursue reports of domestic violence. Deborah Parker and other advocates pushed to address this issue, and some in Congress pushed back.


SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: The key stumbling block to enacting a bill at this time is the provision concerning Indian tribal courts.

WANG: Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, of Iowa, spoke on the Senate floor last February, weeks before the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized. That provision he mentioned would have allowed American Indian tribal courts to have jurisdiction over all non-Indians accused of domestic violence. But the law that passed last year isn't quite so broad.

FRED URBINA: It's fairly complicated.

WANG: And fairly narrow, says Fred Urbina, chief prosecutor for the Pascua Yaqui tribe of Arizona.

URBINA: This basically helped it pass though Congress and get approval. So everybody's describing this as a first step.

WANG: The program is limited to cases involving non-Native American defendants in existing relationships with Native Americans. Still, the Pascua Yaqui tribe's attorney general, Amanda Sampson Lomayesva, says the program will offer a new route for justice.

AMANDA SAMPSON LOMAYESVA: It is a ray of hope. Maybe we can start protecting people, and having the tribal members who live here on the reservation feel like something will be done.

PARKER: It doesn't answer all the questions, but it allows us to exert jurisdiction and arrest those who violate protection orders, dating violence, domestic violence.

WANG: And Deborah Parker, of the Tulalip tribes, says she hopes the program will give a stronger voice to more Native American women. For now, it's limited to her tribe and the Pascua Yaqui, along with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla India Reservation, in Oregon. It will be another year before the program expands to other eligible federally recognized tribes.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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