Skip to main content

Are Tribal Courts Developed Enough For VAWA? Pascua Yaqui Proves It

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe, one of three pilot project tribes, recently held the first Violence Against Women Act Trial Advocacy training.

The American Bar Association Journal summed up the situation this way in a recent article on Reclaiming Sovereignty: “Indian tribes are retaking jurisdiction over domestic violence on their own land.”

And as part of that effort, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Southern Arizona, one of three pilot project tribes chosen by the Justice Department, recently held the first Violence Against Women Act Trial Advocacy training at their Casino Del Sol Conference Center in Tucson.

Attendees came from tribes across the country like Aleisha Pemberton, a domestic and sexual assault prosecutor from the Red Lake Minnesota Band of Chippewa, who said, “Our system is developed, but with domestic violence involving both tribal and non-tribal members being a growing problem, we’re hoping to better our program with this current knowledge.”

Frank Demolli is Chief Judge of the Santa Clara Pueblo in Espanola, New Mexico, where tribal council for its nearly 900 tribal members is discussing the issue. “The pueblo would like to implement VAWA, but where do we get the money?” he asks, admitting that the eight pueblos under his purview were staunch opponents of the Indian Civil Rights Act in the 1960s and fought against some of the standards imposed in the current legislation, particularly federal government oversight of tribal court decisions and having non-Indians on a jury pool.

According to a Washington Post story, “Some members of Congress fought hard to derail the legislation, arguing that non-Indian men would be unfairly convicted without due process by sovereign nations whose unsophisticated tribal courts were not equal to the American criminal justice system.”

That’s a bum rap according to the Pascua Yaqui tribe’s Attorney General Alfred Urbina. “Historically, people argued that tribal courts couldn’t treat people fairly – but that’s not a true snapshot of what tribal courts are now. Today, tribal tribunals are as sophisticated as any municipal court in Arizona in terms of how they operate. There are a lot of tribes already doing a great job administering justice in different ways consistent with their community values.”

Urbina and Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio were part of a contingent that went to Washington last year to present the tribe’s $21 million state-of-the-art courthouse and point to the fact that there are over 300 other tribal courts on sovereign land throughout the U.S.

Development of the Yaqui legal complex was necessary to serve the 5,000 tribal members who lived with, worked with, and often dated or married non-Natives. More than 500 non-tribal members live in the 2-square-mile reservation that employs 800 non-Indian casino and resort employees. Conditions were ripe for trouble. The poverty rate hovered in the 40-45 percent range. Unemployment was at 25 percent. Over 40 percent of the populace was single moms with children. Substance issues were problematic in struggles involving alcohol and drug abuse, gangs, and domestic violence.

During the year-long pilot project, “We recorded 20 DV cases, nearly half involving injuries, with 16 defendants representing Hispanic, Afro-American, Asian, and Caucasian cultures,” according to the tribe’s Chief Prosecutor Oscar “OJ” Flores. “Fourteen female victims were involved along with 18 children (from infant to 11 years old) present during the incidents. These cases represented 25 percent of all the domestic violence cases on the reservation during the trial period.”

“About half the cases during the trial were dismissed early on because charges didn’t ultimately qualify,” adds tribal Public Defender Melissa Acosta. “The one case that did go before a jury was a weak one, a same sex couple where their specific relationship could not be established in court. This is an on-going learning experience, and as each case is different, it presents a new challenge. We’re learning as we go.”

Melvin Stoof (Rosebud Sioux), a 40-year veteran of the legal profession, sat in on all the cases during the Pascua Yaqui trial period. “We’ve seen a lot of substantial changes in the past decade, more collaborative efforts, and more cases being prosecuted. This pilot project will certainly be a model for much of Indian country and what’s happening here will hopefully spread like wildfire as other tribes get on board to keep their women and children safe and make batterers more accountable. This is the ground floor and I’m proud to be a part of it.”