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A Critical Time to Protect Native Women and Advance Tribal Jurisdiction

Washington, DC can be a frustrating place—truly. Each time I meet with our federal partners or my Native brothers and sisters that reside there, I always tell them that I am praying for their sanity. As a traditional councilwoman for the Pauma Band of Mission Indians and as someone who knows the tangible impact that government leaders have on those they serve, half the time I just have to shake my head in disbelief at the legislative and policy decisions coming out of our nation’s capital.

This is why the recent actions by the Department of Justice have been so refreshing and have given me a sense of renewed faith in our leaders in Washington, DC—and those serving in the Obama Administration, in particular. Attorney General Holder and members of his team are trying to implement rational policies without giving in to political temptation, and to stay on moral high ground; they have managed, at least with respect to issues of public safety in Indian Country, to do the right thing. They have shown the courage to tackle the complicated issues and confront them with real solutions—even when those solutions may not yield political capital.

I am referring to the Department’s recent efforts to combat violence against Native women; and in particular, its current consideration of a legislative proposal that would restore tribal authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit the most heinous of acts: crimes of violence against Indian women.

We all know the statistics: Indian women are 2 ½ times more likely to experience violence than other women in the United States; more than 1 in 3 Indian women will be raped in their lifetimes and nearly 40% will be subjected to domestic violence. Perhaps what is more shocking is that, according to Departmental data, non-Indians commit 88% of all violent crimes against Indian women. This violence threatens the lives of our women and the future of our people. While many issues need to be addressed to confront this human rights crisis, it is clear that limitations placed on tribal government jurisdiction by the United States are a key contributing factor, with non-Indian perpetrators falling through the cracks in the system time and time again.

For more than thirty years, since the Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe Supreme Court decision in 1978, Indian nations have been denied criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on Indian lands. And when an Indian woman turns to the United States government (or the state government in Public Law 280 states) to investigate and prosecute her batterer or rapist, help is often too slow to respond or is denied outright. A recent GAO study found that, between 2005-2009, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices declined to prosecute 50 percent of the Indian country matters referred to them and 67 percent of those declined were sexual abuse and related matters. If the federal government declines prosecution, non-Indian rapists, batterers, and stalkers walk free and return to commit future crimes.

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I realize that DOJ has not taken a formal position on any potential jurisdictional fix yet, but the simple fact that they are consulting with tribes on a legislative proposal to address the jurisdictional gaps demonstrates that they truly understand the nature of the problem. With proper authority and adequate resources, tribes can make their communities safe again and help them heal from the violence, pain, and trauma they have endured over generations.

I am fully aware that none of this will happen overnight. It will take a lot of hard work, collaboration, and mutual trust between tribal leaders and federal officials. But the time is now. I commend the strong hearted women that have dedicated their lives to increasing the safety of tribal women to bring us to this juncture. Now we, as tribal leaders, must seize the moment that’s been given to us. We have the vehicle—the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act—and now all we need to do is articulate precisely what it is that will safeguard our women and rid our communities of violence. We need to provide the DOJ with well vetted solutions that will strengthen tribal sovereignty, further self-determination, and protect the wellbeing of our tribal citizens.

I urge tribal leaders to rise to this occasion and meet the challenge with which we have been confronted. Take the time to read the Department’s “framing paper” and attend one of the consultations. (See Of course some may say that the proposal does not go far enough. I will be the first to admit that I share that concern. But now is not the time to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We, as Indian nations, are faced with the real possibility of having authority to prosecute all perpetrators in our communities who beat our women, rape our daughters, and stalk our sisters—Indian and non-Indian alike. We must not let this opportunity slip away.

So, tonight as I go to sleep, I will once again pray for my brothers and sisters in Washington, DC. And I will pray that more of our federal partners follow in the footsteps of Attorney General Holder and, my dear friend, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, and make the tough decisions necessary to effect real, positive changes within our Indian Nations. But tonight I will also say another prayer—I will pray for my Native brothers and sisters across this Nation. I will ask that Creator prepare them for the upcoming consultations with DOJ. I will ask that Creator give them the strength to take a stance in support of a limited jurisdictional fix, even when in their heart of hearts they know that a full fix is warranted. And I will ask that Creator give them the courage to join us on this lifelong journey to protect our Native women from violence.

Juana Majel Dixon is the 1st Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI, and Co-Chair of the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women.