In 1973, the Suquamish Indian Tribe of Washington state accused a non-Indian man of assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest and ordered him to appear in tribal court. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the charges, saying the tribe had no authority to try or punish the man.
Decades after the landmark ruling, it remains a source of irritation and frustration for tribal officials across the country, who complain they’re powerless to bring non-Indians to justice when they commit crimes on Indian lands. Tribal leaders say it’s particularly hard to prosecute rape cases.
The issue has caused a protracted fight on Capitol Hill, where Senate Democrats are pushing reluctant Republicans in the House of Representatives to expand the jurisdictional power of tribes. They want to add new authority for tribes to prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence as part of a plan to extend the Violence Against Women Act, first approved in 1994 as a way to help police and courts respond to abuse. Those opposed to the expansion worry about giving tribes too much power and point out that local law enforcement agencies already have jurisdiction to prosecute nearby crimes committed by non-Indians on Indian lands.
With Congress at a stalemate, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state is encouraging victims to go public with their stories. Murray, one of the leading senators promoting the plan, says that’s the only way it will pass.
“We need people to understand who we’re battling for,” Murray, a fourth-term senator, said in an interview lastweek.
Deborah Parker, the vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, has become the senator’s most prominent ally, recounting her sexual and physical abuse while growing up on the reservation. She doesn’t remember exactly when the abuse began, but she said she was just a toddler, the size of a “2-and-a-half-foot couch cushion,” when she was first violated by a man who came to visit her parents. She said it happened repeatedly until the summer after third grade.
Parker, a 41-year-old mother of five, said the same man – a non-Indian – abused many other young girls but was never charged. She said the abuse was never reported to police because, she said, they wouldn’t have bothered to investigate anyway.
Parker called herself “a Native American statistic,” and they’re grim statistics: Indian women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average, and more than one in three will be raped in their lifetimes, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women. That rape rate is twice as high as it is for other ethnicities, according to experts on sexual violence.
“My story is one story, but there’s literally millions of stories like this, and even more extreme, because some are dead,” Parker said in an interview. “It’s engraved in most of our minds that at some point, your sister, your cousins or someone will be raped.”
Murray said the man who attacked Parker “was never arrested for these crimes, never brought to justice and still walks free today, all because he committed these heinous acts on the reservation.”
Under the Senate plan, tribes would be allowed to try non-Indians only for rape and crimes involving domestic abuse. Separately, the bill also would expand federal investigative assistance to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender victims and would allow more illegal immigrants who are victimized to get temporary visas to stay in the United States. All together, Murray said, it would make more than 30 million more people eligible for federal assistance in investigating and responding to their cases.
“In this country, we should be able to help someone who’s a victim of domestic violence, no matter who they are, or where they live or who they love,” Murray said.
The House has passed its version of the bill, but it doesn’t include any of the new protections.
Some Republicans accuse Murray and other proponents of playing politics, saying that most GOP lawmakers would be willing to extend the law if Democrats would compromise and give up their demands to expand it.
Cheryl Schmit, who heads Stand Up for California, a group that opposes tribal efforts to expand off-reservation casinos, said the push was another example of tribes’ attempts to expand their land base and judicial authority. She said local police and sheriff’s departments already had the authority to arrest and investigate domestic abuse cases on Indian land and that non-tribal members would lose their constitutional rights in tribal courts. She expressed fear that tribes would move next to take over other legal issues, such as tort claims involving casinos.
“The emotions evoked by violence against women provide a great political vehicle to achieve tribal authority over non-Indians,” she said.
Parker and other proponents of the expanded law say the change is needed because local authorities too often are reluctant to investigate crimes committed on Indian land.
On the Senate floor last week, Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa said expanding the law would be unconstitutional and that Democrats didn’t want to compromise because they regarded it as a winning issue in President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. He said the American people “know the games being played, and they are sick and tired of it.”
Murray and other backers say their narrow expansion of the law would survive a court challenge. Murray has been promoting the issue hard in recent weeks, reviving a fight over the legislation that passed the Senate in April. She gave a speech earlier this month, wrote an opinion piece for the Aug. 3 Seattle Times and then hosted a news conference last Monday at Dawson Place, a child advocacy center in Everett, Wash.
On July 30, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, named eight Republicans to a conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate bills, but Congress left town for its August recess before acting.
Murray said she’d drawn “a line in the sand” and that she wasn’t interested in compromising, charging that House Republicans only want to weaken the Senate’s bill.
“They want to take it to conference so they can have a discussion about which women in this country deserve protection and which do not,” Murray said. “They want to pit one group of women against another. This is not a game. It is not politics. And it certainly is not a game I am going to play.”