Advocates for Indian women in Minnesota are hailing a decision by Congress to reauthorize and expand the Violence Against Women Act.
For years, the law has supported domestic violence prevention programs aimed at curbing abuse and sexual assault. It also has funded shelters and training for law enforcement. But until now, the law didn't cover many cases involving American Indian women.
The law signed by President Barack Obama today will make it possible for tribes to prosecute certain, common domestic abuse cases, said Sarah Deer, a former Justice Department Attorney-turned William Mitchell law professor invited by the White House for the signing ceremony in Washington.
"If a woman is being battered or assaulted by her non-Indian boyfriend or husband the tribe can actually press charges, which they haven't been able to do before," said Deer, who for 15 years has advocated changes to the act to better protect American Indian women.
The reauthorized act responds to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that prevented tribal governments from exercising criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.
Deer said the law will only apply to non-Indians who are married or in an intimate relationship with a tribal member. It is also limited to cases of domestic violence.
"So it's not going to apply to just anyone who happens to be on the reservation," Deer said. "It's not going to apply to people who visit a casino, unless they're in some type of romantic relationship with a tribal woman." While the change may appear small, its implications are broad.
“There isn't really any recourse... Their batterers say that -- 'Your tribes can't touch me. They don't have any jurisdiction over me' -- and they go and batter them.”Bonnie Clairmont of the Tribal Law and Policy Institute
"I think it can save lives," said Bonnie Clairmont, a program specialist for the Tribal Law and Policy Institute.
Clairmont, a member of Wisconsin's Ho-Chunk Tribe, works on domestic violence and sexual assault issues in tribal nations around Minnesota and throughout the country. She said domestic violence is worse in tribal communities.
A 2008 study by the United Way and the Department of Public Safety on domestic violence in Minnesota, found 37 percent of Native American women who responded had experienced some type of domestic violence.
Data specifically about domestic violence between Indians and non-Indians is hard to come by, but Clairmont said such incidents seem to be more prevalent.
"There isn't really any recourse. And native women have told me that," she said. "Their batterers say that -- 'Your tribes can't touch me. They don't have any jurisdiction over me' -- and they go and batter them."
Joe Plummer, the tribal attorney for the White Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota, said the decision by Congress to reauthorize the Act gives tribes more sovereignty.
"It permits the tribe to exercise its authority within its reservation boundaries," he said.
Tribes will have the power to set penalties for crimes that fall under the act. Plummer said the ability to prosecute more domestic abuse cases could potentially require White Earth to rent jail space.
"We're in no different situation than some counties in Minnesota, including one right here, Mahnomen County, which does not have a jail," Plummer said. "And they have to do the same thing. They have to rent space in other jails to house their prisoners."
Despite President Obama's signature today, turning the legislation into action could take time.
"The tribes are very happy that there's another tool in their arsenal of sovereignty to address real public safety problems on Indian reservations," said Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "Having said that, it will be expensive for them to implement this."
Washburn said because it could take time to secure funding, any wide-spread benefits from the act could still be years away.