Thursday, July 29, 2010

History time: president to sign Tribal Law and Order Act today

At 4:50pm this afternoon, the president will sign the Tribal Law and Order Act in the East Room. The bill passed the House last week and the Senate in June.

More than one in three Native American and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetime, according to federal statistics.

The 2007 Amnesty International report "Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA" (summary) drew attention to the issue. (See NYT, NPR 1 2 3). I'm writing about this because I worked at Amnesty at the time and it's one of the issues I don't let go of.

From Amnesty:

According to US government statistics, Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the USA.


Tribal law enforcement agencies are chronically under-funded – federal and state governments provide significantly fewer resources for law enforcement on tribal land than are provided for comparable non-Native communities. The lack of appropriate training in all police forces -- federal, state and tribal -- also undermines survivors’ right to justice. Many officers don’t have the skills to ensure a full and accurate crime report. Survivors of sexual violence are not guaranteed access to adequate and timely sexual assault forensic examinations which is caused in part by the federal government’s severe under-funding of the Indian Health Service.

The Federal Government has also undermined the authority of tribal governments to respond to crimes committed on tribal land. Women who come forward to report sexual violence are caught in a jurisdictional maze that federal, state and tribal police often cannot quickly sort out. Three justice systems -- tribal, state and federal -- are potentially involved in responding to sexual violence against Indigenous women.
The Tribal Law and Order Act was introduced in the Senate in July 2008. No one is saying this is a perfect or final "fix" -- because it's not. But in terms of the legislative side, this is fairly huge. In Amnesty's words today:
The Tribal Law and Order Act is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that tackles the complex jurisdictional maze that allows violent crime against American Indians to flourish. 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.
In my book it's one of those days -- and there aren't enough -- when I feel like advocacy and government can work. Government (particularly Senator Dorgan, as well as several others) has responded.

But that's remembering, of course, that this is in the context of government failing on this issue for so long. While this particular bill is relatively new, the issue of sexual assault of Native women is one people, particularly Native women, have been working on for a long time.

Without forgetting that context, it's a day for celebration and hope.


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