Portelli: Native American assault victims in need of recourse

On March 7, President Barack Obama signed an updated version of the Violence Against Women Act that will implement state and local efforts to fight rape and domestic violence, with specific provisions protecting the Native American community. Obama hopes to transform the way survivors deal with abuse. The act includes a long-overdue landmark addition that will permit Native American tribal authorities to prosecute non-Native Americans for abuses committed on tribal lands.

According to The Huffington Post, “The reauthorized act seeks to address part of the crisis by extending tribal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit crimes of domestic violence or sexual assault against a Native American spouse or partner. Tribal governments in the U.S. currently do not have jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit crimes on their land.”

This addition is a significant step for Native American rights. While Obama’s efforts to improve relations between the federal government and Native American tribes represent progress, there is plenty more to be done. Suzanne Gamboa of the Associated Press agrees, writing, “With the accomplishments come greater expectations from a people whose rates of unemployment, violent crime, youth suicides, poverty and high school dropouts are significantly higher than in the rest of the country.”

The Violence Against Women Act is not the only piece of legislation Obama has passed to improve conditions for Native Americans. During his administration, Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 to improve law enforcement and public safety on tribal reservations. He launched a test crime-fighting program in Native American communities, which has led to a dramatic decrease in violent crime.

“I think we have made strides under the Obama administration the likes of which tribes have not seen for 30 years,” said Executive Director of the National Indian Health Board Stacy Bohlen, who is member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan.

In previous years, Native American victims were given little legal recourse because tribal courts could not prosecute non-Native American perpetrators and federal courts had no jurisdiction over crimes committed on reservations. There were long wait periods before a trial even took place because of the bureaucratic inefficiency that had set in in that particular area. This bill would alleviate that system.   

But while Obama has received plaudits for his efforts, Republicans believe that Native Americans don’t deserve protection. They find the Violence Against Women Act to be controversial. House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor argued that the protections for Native Americans are unconstitutional and Sen. Chuck Grassley agrees with him. The senator believes that a jury of Native Americans would not be able to fairly try a white person in court.

“On an Indian reservation, [the jury is] going to be made up of Indians, right? So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial,” said Grassley.

Though the public has long ignored the issue of sexual assault on Native American reservations, the issue is thankfully being addressed in some capacity. More attention needs to be paid to the conditions of Native American reservations and the rights of those living there.