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Justice in Indian country

Lack of consultation derails tribal trust

Part two

Editor's note: This week Indian Country Today continues an ongoing series that examines justice in Indian country. To share your comments, e-mail us at, using ''Justice'' in the subject line.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The leaders of Indian nations have until July 27 to ''opt into'' developing registries of sex offenders under the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act - or face, says the National Congress of American Indians, an erosion of sovereignty.

The impetus for this act has deep roots in mainstream America's growing consciousness about abducted, molested and murdered children. It's named for Adam Walsh, who was 6 when he was murdered. Since then Adam's father, John Walsh, the host of TV's ''America's Most Wanted,'' has advocated for this legislation and crime victims rights for the 25 years since his son's death.

''The Adam Walsh Act is not a law any congressman would ever oppose,'' said NCAI President Joe Garcia. ''It's a good law. But to me this act is also one of the most invasive to Indian country since assimilation policies of the past.''

Congress passed the act last year without consultation with Indian nations over a section of the law that addresses reservations. As a result, Garcia said, language in the act that extends the registries to tribal governments surprised Native leaders who have worked for years to establish similar registries under the Violence Against Women Act. The registries proposed under VAWA were painstakingly negotiated by tribal leaders so they would be effective without impeding sovereignty, said Juana Majel-Dixon, Pauma-Yuima Band of Mission Indians councilman.

Under the Adam Walsh Act, tribes will forfeit their rights to establish a registry if they don't respond to the U.S. Department of Justice by July 27. The responsibilities for establishing one on a reservation that didn't opt in will go to local sheriffs departments, who under the act will also obtain jurisdiction for enforcing registries they establish on Indian land.

''The Adam Walsh Act blindsided tribes concerned with violence against Native women,'' Majel-Dixon said. ''Adam Walsh derailed the whole thoughtful planning that went into the Violence Against Women Act.

''A clever person knew they were cutting the tribes' sovereign authority.''

Justice was unable to respond to questions by press time.

Since 2001, both Native legal experts and their opponents have identified the jurisdiction of Indian nations over perpetrators of violent crimes, such as rape and family abuse, as a political football in the battle over Native nations' sovereignty. John Echohawk, of the Native American Rights Fund, remembers a meeting that happened to occur in Washington, D.C., on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when Native leaders talked about tribes' jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators of sexual violence on reservations as being a critical point to sovereignty of Indian nations.

Since then, crime-victim advocates from Indian country have focused attention on the pandemic of rape on Indian lands by whites and other perpetrators. One in three Indian women will be raped, and more than 70 percent of the rapists are not Indian.

At the NCAI mid-year conference in June, Native women who have worked for decades to end sexual violence on Indian lands held a one-day pre-conference meeting to discuss the need for tribal follow-up on the Adam Walsh Act and other subjects.

The meeting was attended by Margaret Chiara, who was one of the eight U.S. Attorneys fired by the Bush administration. Of those eight, she was one of the five who served on the U.S. Attorneys' subcommittee for Native issues. Chiara said her office had increased prosecutions of these kinds of violent crimes and others on the reservations in her western Michigan district by 85 percent by dedicating an attorney and one staff to prosecutions of these cases. Paul Charlton, the fired U.S. Attorney from Arizona, said one of two reasons Justice told him he was being fired was because he'd called on the FBI to tape confessions.

Charlton later said an FBI policy against taping confessions harms the prosecution rates of Indian child molestations because molesters' confessions are often critical to these cases.

Majel-Dixon and other Native women leaders say that sexual predators target Indian lands because they know that their chances of getting investigated and prosecuted are slim. If these cases are prosecuted, it is most likely by a tribal court which, under federal law, can only impose a one-year sentence even for the most violent rape by a repeat offender. Native leaders say white rapists travel from reservation to reservation offending.

''The joke is the perpetrators have severe laws they face in the non-Indian world,'' Majel-Dixon said. ''But with the help of the attorneys general, the president and Congress, we ended up with a one-year imprisonment no matter what you did.''

Working through VAWA, Native advocates were building a sex offender registry program that would support Indian nations' law enforcement and courts. Through this act, they were also pursuing changes in federal law to strengthen the ability of nations to deal with the pandemic violence as well as the growing methamphetamine crisis on reservations.

But the Adam Walsh Act's language about tribal sex offender registries supersedes this previous work, in so far as this looming July 27 deadline to opt in or by non-action opt out of this basic jurisdiction.

NCAI has called for moving the deadline back and for a meeting of the Native leaders with Justice, and has complained about the lack of consultation.

In July, NCAI is holding conference calls for tribal leaders to inform them about the critical next steps under the Adam Walsh Act. NCAI is urging even tribes that don't think they can afford a registry, or that are in Public Law 280 states where it's unclear if tribes will have the option of running their own registries, to opt in anyway by the July 27 deadline. The Adam Walsh Act gives two years after that deadline for tribes to figure out to figure out how to organize and fund the registries.