Video produced by the Indian Law Resource Center
By Stephanie Siek, CNN
The statistics of violent crimes against Native American women are grim: One in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Three in five will be physically assaulted.
But a recently introduced Senate bill would try to improve their chances of prosecuting their attackers. If passed, it would allocate funding and a devote more resources to survivors.
The Stand Against Violence and Empower Native Women Act, known as the SAVE Native Women Act, is under review in the Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs. Introduced in October by Senator Daniel K. Akaka, a Democrat from Hawaii, the bill aims to fund more services for assault victims and give authorities more tools and clearer guidelines on how to bring cases to court.
There's a direct link between the higher risk of violence against them and impunity for offenders, said Rachel Ward, who co-authored a 2007 Amnesty International report, “Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA."
"Certainly when you look at the fact that Native women are disproportionately more likely to be victims of domestic or sexual violence, it’s in no small part due to the jurisdictional maze that has been perpetrated, allowing perpetrators to get off scott free," Ward said.
Current federal law bars tribal authorities from prosecuting cases against non-Natives. Tribal courts are also restricted in the ways in which they can punish Native offenders: the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act limits tribal punishments for any offense to a $5,000 fine and one year in prison. In some states, the state has jurisdiction over crimes committed on tribal land, but some require federal authorities to handle investigation and prosecution of crimes such as murder and rape.
"The expectation that the federal prosecutor, the U.S. attorney, the FBI is going to show up in every domestic violence case and prosecute – that’s just not going to happen," Ward said. "We tried to secure statistics on the percentage of federal prosecutions, and what little data there was available indicated how under-prosecuted crimes in Indian country are."
With little risk of prosecution, attackers have a sense of impunity.
“A lot of the perpetrators behind these crimes understand that there are jurisdictional complexities in these type of places, so [a reservation] is a perfect place to commit these terrible crimes,” said Erik Stegman, counsel for the Committee on Indian Affairs.
A 2008 update of the Amnesty International report found that tribal police departments are still commonly understaffed, underfunded and undertrained when it comes to dealing with victims of sexual assault. Health clinics on reservations also face those problems, so there's often no way to collect adequate physical evidence that can be used in a prosecution.
The SAVE Native Women Act would introduce grants to train tribal law enforcement and aid organizations that work with indigenous women who are victims of violence. The bill now has 10 sponsors.
Ward calls it a step in the right direction, but not the only one that needs to be taken.
"We have to recognize that there are many other crimes that take place in Indian country where tribal authorities don’t have jurisdiction to protect their citizens," Ward said.