Updated 11:28 a.m. Jan 11, 2013
In 2005, two Native American women in Oklahoma were kidnapped, blindfolded, and raped by three non-native men. Because they were blindfolded, they didn't know if they were assaulted on state, federal, or tribal land. And, due to a tragic gap in the justice system, the location of the crime mattered -- a lot.
If the crime had occurred on tribal land, the non-native status of the attackers would have meant that the tribe could not handle the case locally. Serious offenses by non-natives on tribal land, like rape and murder, are prosecuted at the federal level. This inability for tribes to prosecute non-natives committing crimes on their land was cited in a 2007 Amnesty International report on the justice system’s failure to protect indigenous women. Why does this happen? A scarcity of federal prosecutors is one reason non-natives who commit crimes on tribal land get away with no prosecution. The New York Times reported that in 2011, 65 percent of rape cases on reservations went unprosecuted by the Justice Department. Misdemeanor crimes by non-natives, like domestic violence, often fall into a jurisdictional morass, say advocates, with no one authority taking charge of their prosecution.
That could have changed this year. The most recent version of the Violence Against Women Act, which was first passed in 1994, sought to ease the epidemic of violence against Native women by allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-tribal members for domestic violence, dating violence and violating restraining orders.