Surrounded by tribal and Congressional leaders, President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law July 29.

[imgcontainer] [img:ObamasignsTribalact530.jpg] [source]Kevin Dietsch, for UPI[/source] Surrounded by tribal and Congressional leaders, President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law July 29. [/imgcontainer]

Chi Miigwich, Mr. President!

July 29, 2010 was a special day for American Indian people. President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which will provide tribes with greater authority to prosecute crimes on reservations and hold federal authorities accountable for their efforts (or lack thereof) in investigating and prosecuting crime in Indian Country. Turtle Talk, the blog for the Indigenous Law and Order Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law, has an excellent rundown of what the new Act will mean for Indian people.

According to Justice Department data, many reservations have violent crime rates more than 2. 5 times higher than the national rate. Gangs and their attendant violence and lawlessness have exploded on reservations as criminals have realized the lack of enforcement.

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Bryon Dorgan (D-North Dakota) had long pushed for the passage of the Act.

“Native American families have a right to live in a safe and secure environment,” Dorgan stated. “The federal government has treaty and trust obligations to see that they do.” Dorgan acknowledged that the federal government “has done a poor job of meeting those obligations.” And he called Tribal Law and Order Act “a big step forward in fighting violent crime in Indian Country.”
Major provisions of the Act include:

– Evidence Sharing and Declinations: Federal officials have declined to prosecute more than half of the violent crimes in Indian Country; prosecution rates for sexual assaults have been even worse. The bill will require the Department of Justice to maintain data on criminal declinations and share evidence with tribal justice officials when a case is declined.

– 3-year Tribal Court Sentencing: According to prior federal law, tribal courts can sentence offenders to no more than one year in prison, limiting the Indian courts’ ability to provide justice to crime victims or communities. The bill establishes an option for tribes to increase sentencing authority for up to three years where a tribe provides added protections to defendants.

– Deputizing Tribal Police to Enforce Federal Law: The complex jurisdictional arrangement in Indian Country prevents tribal police from arresting offenders, even when a crime is committed in plain view. The bill will enhance the Special Law Enforcement Commission program, deputizing tribal police officers to enforce federal laws on Indian lands against all offenders.

[imgcontainer] [img:drug-forcesclosein530.jpg] [source]Mike Roemer for AP, via Reznet[/source] The Tribal Law and Order Act strengthens the authority of tribal police to make arrests. Here, Oneida police and Wisconsin state Division of Criminal Investigations officers entered a home on the Oneida Indian Reservation, Hobart, WI, where they suspected drug trafficking, 2009. [/imgcontainer]

– Tribal Police Access to Criminal History Records: Many tribal police have no access to criminal records. As a result, when pulling over a suspect, the officer has no background information on the person who is detained. The bill will provide tribal police greater access to criminal history databases such as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

— Domestic and Sexual Violence: The bill will require tribal and federal officers serving Indian Country to receive specialized training to interview victims of sexual assault and collect crime scene evidence. It also requires Indian Health Service facilities to implement consistent sexual assault protocols, and requires federal officials to provide documents and testimony gained in the course of their federal duties to aid in prosecutions before tribal courts. 

— Programs to Improve Justice Systems and Prevent Crime: The bill reauthorizes and improves programs designed to foster tribal court systems, tribal police departments, and tribal corrections programs. It also updates laws to address high rates of alcohol and substance abuse,and programs to improve opportunities for at risk youth on Indian lands.

[imgcontainer left] [img:lisa-marie-Iyotte320.jpg] [source]Kevin Dietsch, for UPI[/source] Lisa Maria Iyotte, Rosebud Sioux, introduced President Obama at the signing ceremony in Washington, D.C. Iyotte is an advocate for victims of domestic violence. [/imgcontainer]

An emotional Lisa Marie Iyotte of the Rosebud Sioux tribe introduced President Obama at the bill signing ceremony. Iyotte works at the Sicangu Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, where she speaks on behalf of victimized Indian and Alaska Native women. She is also a sexual assault survivor who never saw her perpetrator brought to justice. Federal authorities declined to prosecute the crime or even interview her. (Her perpetrator was eventually arrested and convicted for assaulting another victim.)  She said she is hopeful that the TLOA will prevent cases like hers from happening again.

The general public was shocked to learn of the high rates of sexual assault against Indian women. The news hit the headlines in 2007 after Amnesty International published their Maze of Injustice Report: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women in the U.S. The Report found that 1 in 3  Indian women will be raped in their lifetimes. This represents the highest rate of sexual assault for any ethnicity in this country.

I and all the Indian women I know want to know, however, who those other two women are who haven’t been assaulted — because we’ve never met them. The truth is that it’s been open season on Indian women for a very, very long time.

It took far too long for the U. S. to notice or care. I’m not ungrateful but am profoundly sad for the pain we have endured in silence for so many generations. Indian women have not talked about sexual assault, not even to each other. We haven’t gone to the police or even the hospital unless absolutely necessary.  We have found neither justice nor healing through the justice system, only more shame, blame and disappointment. Our families have often not supported us. So we showered and went on, until now. 

Sarah Deer of the  Muscogee tribe put the passage of the Act into perspective for me via email. She was a contributor to the Amnesty report and has written extensively about the history of sexual violence against American Indian women.  She is an assistant professor of law at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, MN.

“I see the new TLOA (Tribal Law and Order Act) as a foundation.  It is a strong beginning, but it will take several years of collaboration and increased funding to actually build on that foundation. I worry sometimes that people expect a ‘quick fix’ to problems that have been ongoing for over a century.   While TLOA didn’t contain all the fixes (or dollars) that would be ideal, we now have a starting point.  I am encouraged by the bi-partisan support for tribal sovereignty and I think tribes can now point to specific language from TLOA in their communications with federal agencies about their needs.

“In addition, tribes seeking grant dollars can reference the TLOA as support for their requests. I think requiring the U.S. Attorneys offices to communicate more regularly with tribal officials will increase their accountability to the tribes in their jurisdiction. Long way to go, but I see it as a victory.”

We do have a long way to go and I am reminded of the words from an Indian woman and women’s advocate who told me, “Indian women won’t find genuine healing through the justice system. We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

We in Indian Country will need to take a hard look at our communities and the attitudes that have allowed such violence to continue for so long.

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