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Tribes praise passage of VAWA with tribal jurisdiction provision

Tribal leaders from across the country hailed the passage of S.47, a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, on Thursday.

For the first time, Congress has enacted a bill that recognizes tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Tribes will be able to investigate, prosecute and punish all offenders who commit domestic violence offenses on their reservations.

“Up until now, U.S. law has denied Native women equal access to justice, a fact borne out by statistic after statistic. More than a third of American Indian and Alaska Native women have been raped in their lifetimes; 39 percent were subjected to domestic violence in their lifetimes; and on some reservations, Native women have been murdered at more than ten times the national average," Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp said in a press release.

"In 80 percent of the cases, these crimes were carried out by non-tribal men against native women, and our police could not arrest them. That will no longer be the case, and our objective is to make those statistics a thing of the past,” Sharp added.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly also praised the bill. He said it recognizes the inherent sovereign rights of tribal governments.

"Women should not have to live in fear of violent acts of crime. This bill gives tribal nations the tools to protect Native women," Shelly said in a press release.

“The Navajo Nation, like any government, should have the right to protect its people," Shelly added.

The tribal jurisdiction provisions remained controversial even as the bill easily passed the Senate on February 12. Republicans in the House initially insisted on an alternative that would have allowed non-Indians to avoid tribal courts and go to federal court at any step in the process.

That version, however, was rejected in favor of the Senate's version of VAWA. S.47 requires tribes to protect the constitutional rights of non-Indian defendants, who must have ties to the community in order to fall under tribal jurisdiction.

“With this authority, comes a serious responsibility and tribal courts will administer justice with the same level of impartiality that any defendant is afforded in state and federal courts,” Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians and Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, said in a press release.

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma also welcomed the bill. The tribe is the largest in the U.S. in terms of membership.

“This legislation will give tribal sovereign nations the capacity to better protect our people from violent offenders. It was the right thing to do for Native women, and it was the right time to expand tribal authority to prosecute these terrible crimes," Chief Bill John Baker said in a press release.

Brian Paterson, the president of the United South and Eastern Tribes, said the bill was a victory for Native women who fought hard for the tribal jurisdiction provisions.

"On this day, our women are stronger because they have a greater potential to defend themselves with justice that they have been denied," Paterson said in a statement.

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