By Lillian Alvernaz • February 15, 2018
The relationship between tribes and the federal government is unlike that of any other group of people. The history between the two has severely hindered tribal sovereignty and way of life. Federal Indian policy has swung back and forth for and against tribal self-determination, but always with the goal of assimilation. Due to a series of Supreme Court jurisprudence and Congressional legislation, tribes are designated as domestic dependent nations with Congress holding plenary power over Indian affairs. Tribal sovereignty is also severely hindered by jurisdictional limitations put in place by the federal government and as a result of such federal Indian law and policy.
These limitations create gaps in the ability of tribes to provide adequate protection to those residing within the exterior boundaries of their reservations. As a result, sexual and domestic violence rates committed against Native American women are brutally disproportionate. Recognizing this, four bills were introduced by Senate members in late 2017. Each bill acknowledges the limitations to tribal governance and works to combat violence against Native women.
Senate Bill 1870, the “Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act,” or SURVIVE Act, will set aside money from the Crime Victims Fund to specifically aid Indian country. This is notable because previously, tribes would have to ask state programs for funding for victims and survivors. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a listening session on Monday but has yet to be considered in the Senate.
Senate bill 1942 “Savanna’s Act,” specifically addresses missing and murdered Indigenous women. Savanna’s Act cites “Indian women are murdered at more than ten times the national average” among many other startling statistics.
Senate Bill 1953 amends the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and Indian Law Enforcement Reform Act to support tribal public safety services. The “Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2017” works to enhance tribal law enforcement services, encourages interagency cooperation and enhances Federal accountability regarding public safety in tribal communities.
Senate Bill 1986 amends the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 by extending tribal court jurisdiction over crimes related to sexual violence. The “Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act” fills in several gaps left by the Violence Against Women Act 2013 Reauthorization.
While each of these acts provides an opportunity to exercise enhanced jurisdiction and thus more sovereignty, each requires a compromise. Moving forward, tribes are, for the most part, forced to find a balance between traditional practices and adapting to look more like a non-Indian system of government. Even though some tribes already supply necessary requirements to implement the above bills, others do not and might not be able to. Until tribes are given complete criminal jurisdiction within the exterior bounds of their reservations, citizens will continue to be not fully protected, and tribal sovereignty will continue to be diminished.