Battered Indian Tribal Women Caught in Legal Limbo

Spousal abuse would land the perpetrator in jail anywhere in the country. But on some Indian reservations U.S. laws give tribal police no jurisdiction over non-tribal abusers. States have no jurisdiction on tribal lands.

As a result, abused women go unprotected. Legislation to fix the problem has passed both houses of Congress, but in differing forms. Until the two sides in Washington can find agreement, battered women on tribal lands will remain in a legal limbo and their abusers know it.

"He started flaunting it; what are you going to do? Who's going to arrest me? I dare you to call the police. I'll call the police for you. And he did," said a 45-year-old woman who asked to remain anonymous out of concerns for her safety.

Two days after her wedding the southern-Indian tribal member was punched in the face by her new husband. She was on her way to her mother's house and he didn't want her to go.

"I tried to push him away and in that very minute he snapped… he punched me. And I can remember his hands in my hair, and in the gravel, and a lot of blood that came from my nose or my lip," she said.

She was a six-generation tribal member; her husband, an Anglo from a city nearby. More than 50 percent of native women have non-Indian husbands.

Like so many battered woman it took her two months to accept that something was wrong and go for help. But when she did, her pleas for protection and safety were met with silence from the authorities.

What was hardest for the mother of two—who sent her kids to live with their father from a previous marriage due to the constant abuse—was how her husband's thinking "became grandiose" because no one could arrest him, convict him, or protect her from his ever-increasing bouts of violence.

"When we were dating he was perfect," she said looking back on their six-week romance.

She and her husband were living on a tribal reservation in Southwest Colorado, and because her husband was not a tribal member she was told there "wasn't much that the tribal police could do to a non-tribal member." She was given the same response from local and state officials in Colorado -- that because they were on tribal lands, they could not respond and have no jurisdiction.

What was most astonishing for the victim was that her house was just 50 yards from non-tribal property, where Colorado and United States laws apply.

"If we drove back to my house, even if the abuse was conducted on state grounds, it was tribal property again, so they [police] would come and ask questions but would say because we are now on the reservation they can't do anything," the victim explained.

"The message I was getting that was very clear is the tribe couldn't charge him or arrest him because he was non-native. The non-native police couldn't arrest him because he was white, married to a native woman living on the reservation."

Native women in the US face epidemic abuse rates. According to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, 34 percent of native women will be raped in their lifetime and 39 percent will be the victim of domestic violence. According to a 2010 GAO study, the feds decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse and related matters that occur in Indian country.

"Right now you are untouchable if you commit a violent crime on tribal lands," Devon Boyer, sergeant at arms for the Shoshone-bannock tribes and a former tribal law enforcement officer, told ABC News.

Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) the problem could be solved, unless legislators in the House remove the provisions that would protect Native woman and give control to native police.

Under the Senate bill, tribal police would gain control over all persons committing domestic violence and dating violence on tribal lands, while clarifying tribal civil jurisdiction over non-Indians.

"It would solve a lot of the problems to have local control as the outside does, it will send the same message that you can't get away with it," Boyer said.

The House bill, which passed Wednesday , and was put forth by House Republicans, removes local, tribal enforcements against domestic violence but allows battered Native woman to file a suit in U.S. district court for protection against their abusers, providing them with legal recourse.

Gays and lesbians would not be explicitly protected under the House bill either. The House Republican alternative to the Senate-passed VAWA even removes a provision that sets new reporting standards for domestic violence on college and university campuses. That measure was so non-controversial on the Senate side that it wasn't even discussed there.

Democrats spoke on the House floor Wednesday against the Republican VAWA bill and in support of the bi-partisan Senate bill. "Isn't that our value, to protect every individual?" asked House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. "'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all individuals are endowed by their creator.' Shouldn't we protect all individuals? Not exclude some?"

When asked about the House bill, Boyer said, "it puts native people on reservations on a second priority; that they are not people and therefore they would rather protect the nontribal members committing those crimes than punish them to the same extent than if the crimes were done in their home, to their people."

"This is an extremely dangerous bill" that victims' rights advocates "shouldn't go anywhere near," Lisalyn Jacobs of the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women told Roll Call.

As for the 45-year-old southern-Indian tribal member, her abuse only stopped after her husband came to her work with 9mm gun.

"His intentions I know to this day were to shoot and kill me," she said.

Luckily, her coworker pushed her out of the way of the shots. After the shooting her husband fled and was not captured for two weeks.

The DA offered him a plea deal for driving without a license—a felony, whereas domestic violence is a misdemeanor for a first-time offender.

"When I asked (the DA) 'why aren't you bringing up the past assaults' I was told it's because he was never prosecuted. The tribe never did and county never did. So this (the shooting) was his first offense."

Her now ex-husband is serving his sentence for driving with a revoked license.

Today, she begs for legislators to "be our voice so we're not silenced out because we are silenced say when the system doesn't work for us."

ABCs' Tom Shine contributed to this report.

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