• Press Release

USA: Landmark legislation addressing sexual violence against Native women passed

March 27, 2011


Tribal Law and Order Act is an ‘Historic Effort to Tackle Major Challenges That Allow Crimes Against Native Peoples to Flourish,’ Says Amnesty International

July 21, 2010

Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) today applauded House passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that tackles the complex jurisdictional maze that allows violent crime against American Indians to continue unabated. The Tribal Law and Order Act, a long overdue effort to address public safety issues in Indian Country, would enhance the criminal justice system by improving coordination and communication between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies.

"This historic, bi-partisan legislation addresses long-overlooked human rights abuses in Indian Country. It is an important effort to tackle major challenges that allow crimes against Native American and Alaska Native peoples to flourish," said Larry Cox, executive director for AIUSA. "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 stands to curtail the impunity that allows rapists to prey on Native women like vultures."

The Tribal Law and Order Act is bi-partisan legislation that was introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD). The Act passed the Senate on June 23, 2010, as part of H.R. 725, The Indian Arts and Crafts Amendment Act of 2010. Today, the House passed H.R. 725 with the Tribal Law and Order Act attached. The legislation addresses disturbing rates of sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women, a subject that Amnesty International drew national attention to in its 2007 report, Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA.

Maze of Injustice exposed the disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence that Native American and Alaska Native women suffer in this country — 2.5 times higher than for non-native women in the United States. The complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions often allows perpetrators, 86 percent of them non-Native men, to rape with impunity. To navigate this maze, authorities need to establish whether the crime took place on tribal lands and whether the perpetrator was Native or non-Native to determine which law enforcement agency has jurisdiction, during which critical time is lost. This leads to inadequate investigations or a failure to respond.

"It is encouraging to see Congress begin to address some of the complicated jurisdictional issues that arise in Indian country," said Sarah Deer, Assistant Professor at William Mitchell College of Law and a consultant for AIUSA’s Maze of Injustice report. "The erosion of tribal authority means that Native perpetrators tried in tribal court can receive only one year per offense, while non-Native perpetrators cannot be prosecuted at all. The legislation provides beginning steps to empower tribal governments to take more direct action in cases of violent crime. When victims know that their perpetrators will be held accountable for their behavior, they will be more likely to report crimes. Empowering tribal law enforcement personnel to protect their communities is the key."

In addition to the jurisdictional morass, the lack of trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) at Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities to provide forensic exams and gather essential evidence is a factor that leads to a failure to prosecute. The AI report raised concerns about the lack of prosecutions and the need for accurate information about prosecution rates.

"Currently there are no standardized sexual assault protocols within the Indian Health Service, meaning that victims of sexually violent crimes may not be given rape kits that obtain critical evidence to prosecute perpetrators," said Charon Asetoyer, chair of AIUSA’s Native Advisory Council. "The Tribal Law and Order Act will remedy this and underscore the importance of the need for medical staff that collect forensic evidence to testify in a court of law. It is a critical step toward ensuring that Native women’s human rights are recognized."

The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 is in direct response to concerns raised by tribal leaders, tribal organizations, Native American and Alaska Native women and the AI report. Specifically the Act will:

  • clarify the responsibilities and increase coordination among federal, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies with respect to crimes committed in tribal communities;
  • begin to restore tribal governments with authority, resources, and information to address crimes on tribal land;
  • combat violence against Indian and Alaska Native women;
  • increase and standardize the collection and distribution of criminal data in tribal communities, including the data that establishes whether crimes are being prosecuted.

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 2.8 million supporters, activists and volunteers who campaign for universal human rights from more than 150 countries. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.

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For more information, please visit www.amnestyusa.org/maze.