Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Work Together: Indian Tribes Should Be Able to Prosecute Non-Indians

As a general rule, women are at the greatest risk of rape and sexual assault from men of their own race or ethnicity. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report (pdf) from the late 1990s estimates 88 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone who is the same race as the victim.

But according to a recent New York Times op-ed, that rule of thumb doesn't apply to Native American women, particularly those who live on reservations. More than 80 percent of Native American women who are attacked say that the rapist was not Indian, law professor N. Bruce Duthu said in the article.

Duthu also cited Justice Department statistics saying one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes. Rape is a serious problem in Indian Country. You can read the transcript or listen to this report that played on NPR last year to get some idea of the scope of the problem.

And here's the other shoe: Under federal law Indian tribes can't prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on the reservation. In practical terms, that means a non-Indian who commits a crime on an Indian reservation only gets prosecuted if someone can convince a state or federal prosecutor to take action -- something that doesn't happen often, especially in run-of-the mill cases.

Back in the 1970s, when I spent a summer on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, I heard of criminal acts by whites living on the reservations -- acts that went unpunished because the Sioux Nation had no jurisdiction over them. It was obvious then that some white people were deliberately taking advantage of the fact that they were immune from prosecution in the tribal courts. Since that time, according to Duthu, the Supreme Court has upheld the limited jurisdiction of Indian courts.

Congress needs to act now to change this law; it's way overdue. Indian tribes should have the same right to enforce their laws in their territory as any other political subdivision in the country. As long as their authority is limited, Native American women will be targets.

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