The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 15, 2014

Change to Violence Against Women Act is not enough for Natives

The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young

— News last week that the U.S. Justice Department will allow three American Indian tribes to prosecute non-Indians for crimes on reservations is an important step toward these sovereign nations’ abilities to self-govern.

The pilot project, which begins Thursday, will allow the Pascua Yaqui in Arizona, the Tulalip of Washington and the Umatilla of Oregon to prosecute non-Indian husbands and boyfriends for domestic and dating violence against American Indian women, The Washington Post reported.

The project is part of the 2013 Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which goes into full effect March 2015 for the nation’s other 563 federally recognized Indian tribes, The Post said. However, the law does not protect Alaska Native women nor does it cover sexual assault and rapes committed by non-Indians who are strangers to their victims.

Under a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Indian nations could not prosecute non-Indians for criminal offenses that occur on reservations. The nations have authority to prosecute crimes on their property so long as the defendant is an Indian.

That makes no sense. Neither does the following town hall comment reported by The Post from Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa: “On an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right? So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.”

Then Grassley must believe that whites can’t render a fair verdict in the case of a black defendant. Oh, wait, the country’s prison population already proved that’s true.

When Americans go to another country, they are subject to that country’s laws. No one seems to question that. Yet, when a non-Indian goes onto a sovereign nation’s land inside the U.S., it is automatically assumed that person won’t be treated fairly.

Where was the justice when American Indians were thrown off their lands, promised new ones and thrown off those when oil or gold was discovered? Where was the justice when Indians living off reservations among whites were afraid to claim their heritage because they were afraid of losing their land? Where was the justice when many American Indians identified themselves in the census as black because the prejudice against Indians was so rampant?

What about all the scalpings, hangings, burnings, rapings and murders since whites got off those ships in Plymouth and Jamestown?

Grassley’s concerns about fairness are about 200 years too late.

The Post reported an estimated one in three Native women is assaulted or raped and three of five experience domestic violence. The odds are sorely against women with 75 percent of residents on reservations who are non-Indian.

Reporters spoke to Native women who said their boyfriends or husbands knew they could abuse their girlfriends or wives without consequence. Trying to determine whether state or federal officers have jurisdiction is the first, almost insurmountable, obstacle. Add to that the ruralness of reservations and women are, quite literally, on their own.

What’s wrong with this law is not its breadth but its depth. What would be really fair is to extend Indian nations’ rights to prosecute all crimes committed on reservations. Then, American Indians would truly be sovereign as the Great White Father promised them all those years ago.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2014 by Nerissa Young