In the decade since Donna O'Brien became a law enforcement officer at the Comanche Nation Police Department in Lawton, OK, she has seen many changes in how Indian Country—the description Native Americans still use for the vast territory inside the U.S. under tribal jurisdiction—is policed.
Mostly, things have improved on her reservation, she says, including more attention to training officers to deal with substance abuse, the introduction of innovative approaches such as alternative courts, and even an expansion of tribal police forces.
Except in one glaring area: protecting native women from violence.
"Everybody seems to be on the same page when fighting the war on drugs, but nobody seems to be on the same page in fighting the war (that is being waged) on women and children," says O'Brien, now a major in the detective division of the Commanche Nation force.
Experts contacted by The Crime Report suggest she's right. Interviews with government officials, police, attorneys and others familiar with the problem say violence against native women has grown to epidemic proportions.
The statistics are sobering.
According to a study by the Department of Justice, two in five Native women will be victims of domestic violence and one-in-three will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
Yet, four out of five perpetrators of these crimes are non-Indian and cannot be prosecuted by tribal governments, according to Emily Deimel, Communications Director for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in an email to The Crime Report. In an effort to address this dichotomy, U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) introduced The Stand Against Violence and Empower Native Women (S.A.V.E. Native Women) Act into Congress at the end of October 2011.
"We cannot let the next generation of young Native women grow up as their mothers have—in unbearable situations that threaten their security, stability, and even their lives," declared Akaka.
The bill would extend the jurisdiction of tribal justice authorities to non-Indians who commit crimes on Indian lands. It will also improve domestic violence programs, and fund more data collection to better understand—and respond to—sex trafficking of Native women.
Essentially, it would correct a long-overlooked justice gap that has been a sore point in Indian Country for decades. Currently, crimes committed on Indian land by a non-tribal person have to be investigated and prosecuted by the Federal government, even crimes against native people.
If a native person commits a crime against another native person on Indian land, he or she is arrested and tried under tribal laws. The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 allows for convicted perpetrators to be jailed for up to three years.
"Perpetrators are able to commit crime with impunity," says Jana L. Walker, an attorney at the Indian Law Resource Center, a non-profit legal advocacy organization based in Montana and Washington, D.C., who has frequently testified on violence against native women.
"The United States does have obligations to take steps and to keep native women in the United States safe, and the S.A.V.E Native Women Act is the first step in that direction."
Supporters of the legislation argue that the prosecuting violent crimes against women will end a cycle of unchecked abuse that too often ends in the death of the victim.
"When the Federal government has jurisdiction over these crimes, resources are stretched thin and it is a challenge to integrate into the [Tribal] community in a meaningful way," says Virginia Davis, Deputy Director for Policy at the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice.
Waiting for Congress
In the current pre-election climate, few bills are likely to get though, says Walker of the Indian Law Resource Center. Indeed it has been over a year since the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has expired and Congress has yet to reauthorize its provisions.
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held hearings last month on the S.A.V.E Native Women Act.
There is nothing on the schedule for further action, but Deimel said that the S.A.V.E. Native Women Act is a top priority for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.(Update: After story publication TCR was notified that The S.A.V.E. Native Women Act has been scheduled for mark-up on Thursday, Dec. 8th, 2011.)
For the Commanche Nation's O'Brien, passage, if it comes, couldn't come a minute too soon.
"Non-Indians think they can do anything when they come off Federal land onto Indian land," she said. "I see it not only in violence against women but in drugs and everything else. (This law) will make a world of difference for law enforcement and victims across Indian country."
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.