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Three Tribes to Exercise Jurisdiction Over Non-Indian Perpetrators Under VAWA

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Three American Indian tribes—the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, and the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon—will be the first in the nation exercise their inherent right to protect women from domestic violence and rape, regardless of the offender’s Indian or non-Indian status.

The tribes have been granted this new criminal jurisdiction under a Department of Justice pilot project authorized by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013).

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These tribes will have the authority to prosecute anyone who commits a crime of domestic violence on their lands, and thus help stop this cycle of violence and better defend women in Indian country who were previously left vulnerable by gaps in the law.

“This is just the latest step forward in this administration’s historic efforts to address the public safety crisis in Indian country,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “Every day, we’re working hard to strengthen partnerships with tribal leaders and confront shared challenges—particularly when it comes to protecting Indian women and girls from the shocking and unacceptably high rates of violence they too often face. With the important new tools provided by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, these critical pilot projects will facilitate the first tribal prosecutions of non-Indian perpetrators in recent times. This represents a significant victory for public safety and the rule of law, and a momentous step forward for tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”

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Although the provisions authorizing the special jurisdiction take effect generally in March 2015, the law also gives the Attorney General discretion to grant a tribe’s request to exercise the jurisdiction earlier, through a voluntary pilot project. The authority to approve such requests has been delegated to Associate Attorney General Tony West.

“The old jurisdictional scheme failed to adequately protect the public—particularly native women—with too many crimes going unprosecuted and unpunished amidst escalating violence in Indian Country,” West stated in congratulatory letters to tribal leaders about this historic achievement.

“Our actions today mark a historic turning point. We believe that by certifying certain tribes to exercise jurisdiction over these crimes, we will help decrease domestic and dating violence in Indian country, strengthen tribal capacity to administer justice and control crime, and ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable for their criminal behavior,” West added.

For the first time in three decades, tribes will regain their right to prosecute non-Indian defendants. Since the Supreme Court’s 1978 opinion in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, tribes have been prohibited from exercising this criminal jurisdiction in matters pertaining to domestic violence and dating violence committed by non-Indian abusers against their Indian spouses, intimate partners and dating partners.

“Even a violent crime committed by a non-Indian husband against his Indian wife, in the presence of her Indian children, in their home on the Indian reservation, could not be prosecuted by the tribe,” a DOJ press release states. “In granting the pilot-project requests of the Pascua Yaqui, Tulalip, and Umatilla tribes today, the United States is recognizing and affirming the tribes’ inherent power to exercise ‘special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction’ (SDVCJ) over all persons, regardless of their Indian or non-Indian status, for crimes committed on or after Feb. 20, 2014,” the release continues.

More information about the DOJ announcement can be found at: