President Obama signs Tribal Law and Order Act

August 2, 2010

I am thrilled to share with you a deeply moving moment in a long-awaited, hard-fought, and historic victory for Native American and Alaska Native peoples in the United States.  Last Thursday afternoon, I had the privilege of attending a special ceremony at the White House where President Obama signed into law H.R. 725 – the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. This law entering into force marked an important step forward in beginning to address some of the many continuing injustices that Native American and Alaska Native communities – particularly women – face in this country.  It was especially meaningful to stand not just along aside my Amnesty International colleagues but with our Native partners who for so long have fought to stop the horrific violence and human rights violations inflicted on Native American and Alaska Native women.  It is their courage and determination that made this historic advance possible.

The Tribal Law and Order Act is a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation that tackles the complex jurisdictional maze that allows violent crime against Native American and Alaska Native peoples to flourish.  In particular, it seeks to put an end to the epidemic rates of rape and sexual assault perpetrated against Indigenous women in the US.  As many of you know from your years of activism and support for AIUSA’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign, the situation we found Native women facing in this country when began our research in 2005 was truly appalling.  As detailed in our 2007 reported entitled Maze of Injustice, Native women are 2.5 times more likely than other women in this country to be raped. Women from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas told us that they couldn’t think of a single woman who hadn’t been sexually assaulted.  More than one in three Native women will be raped at some point in their lives, 86 percent of them by non-Native perpetrators. The fact that the majority of these crimes occur with total impunity points clearly to the legacy of discrimination that Native communities had faced for many generations.

Among other things, this legislation means that every Native American and Alaska Native woman now finally has the chance to get a police response, have access to a rape kit, the opportunity to see her case prosecuted and see justice served for crimes committed against her. It standardizes the much needed sexual assault protocols within the Indian Health Service to ensure that survivors of sexual assault will receive proper treatment and care and that crucial forensic evidence will be collected.  The Act also clarifies who is responsible for prosecuting crimes in tribal communities and restores authority, resources, and information to tribal governments.  While taking initial steps to restore power to tribal governments to take more direct action in cases of violent crime, it will also hold federal authorities accountable for failure to prosecute.

If properly implemented, it will open the door for the U.S. government to address the erosion of tribal authority.  In time, it will decrease the high levels of rape and finally provide Native women with effective recourse if they are sexually assaulted. In short, this legislation challenges the long-standing mind-set that Native women are not worthy of protection.

It was impossible to stand in the East Room of the White House watching President Obama sign this law without thinking of the survivors of sexual violence within Native communities.  So many Native women courageously came forward to share their stories with Amnesty International while we were conducting our research.  This ceremony began, appropriately, with a survivor from the Rosebud nation who described what happened to her in the 1990s. She was visibly overwhelmed with emotion as she said that had this law been in place before she had been raped, her experience might have been very different.  It was moving and hopeful to see the President of the United States stand with her as she spoke and hug her at the end.

Before and after the ceremony, it was humbling to speak with the lead sponsors of the legislation, Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Representative Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota who thanked Amnesty International and said that without our hard work and commitment the bill could not have been passed.  I mention this to thank all of you, our members, for all of your generous support and activism of this campaign.  I hope it serves as a reminder that each of us plays a vital role whenever human rights strides are made.  It is my hope that this victory fuels our continued dedication towards working to demand human rights for all people, everywhere.  But I would be remiss if I did not thank most of all the tribal leaders and advocates who worked so heroically and tirelessly, long before Amnesty International took up this fight, to ensure that their communities’ dignity, security and rights are respected.  We feel honored to have worked in partnership with them.

President Obama has taken a significant, even if partial, step toward stopping the harsh injustice and horrific violence experienced by so many Native American and Alaska Native women.  After centuries of painful history it is a welcome change and a breath of hope that Congress acted swiftly on the recommendations that tribal communities and Amnesty International put forth to begin to respect the human rights of Indigenous peoples in the United States.  There is still so much that needs to be done but for now Amnesty International applauds this action for Indigenous and human rights taken by President Obama and the U.S. Congress.