President Barack Obama signs S.47, an update to the Violence Against Women Act that recognizes tribal authority over certain non-Indian offenders in certain situations, during a ceremony at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 2018. Photo: National Congress of American Indians

Obama cites 'inherent' right of tribes at VAWA signing ceremony

Tribes have an "inherent" right to protect their people, President Barack Obama said as he signed S.47, a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, into law on Thursday.

The new law recognizes tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit domestic violence offenses on reservations. Obama said the historic provisions will help protect American Indian and Alaska Native women.

"Indian Country has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in America. And one of the reasons is that when Native American women are abused on tribal lands by an attacker who is not Native American, the attacker is immune from prosecution by tribal courts," Obama said at a ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C.

"Well, as soon as I sign this bill that ends," Obama added. "Tribal governments have an inherent right to protect their people, and all women deserve the right to live free from fear. And that is what today is all about."

VAWA Presidential Signing Ceremony

Obama was joined at the ceremony by Vice President Joe Biden, who was one of the original co-sponsors of VAWA in 1994 when he served in the Senate. Biden was introduced to the crowd by Diane Millich, a member of the Southern Ute Tribe of Colorado who survived a year of abuse at the hands of her non-Indian ex-husband.

"When this bill is signed, the Violence Against Women Act will finally reach Native American women like me," Millich said. Her tribe was unable to prosecute her ex-husband because it lacked jurisdiction over him.

Tribes will now be able to arrest, prosecute and sentence non-Indians but only under certain conditions. The non-Indian defendant must live in "Indian Country" or be employed in "Indian Country" or must be a partner of a tribal member of another Indian person who also resides in "Indian Country."

The term "Indian Country" is defined by Section 1151 of title 18 in the U.S. Code. Effectively that means Alaska Native villages can't prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence offenses.

Tribal jurisdiction is limited to crimes of domestic violence, dating violence and violations of protection orders. Non-Indians will be afforded "all other rights whose protection is necessary under the Constitution of the United States in order for Congress to recognize and affirm the inherent power of the participating tribe to exercise special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over the defendant," according to the bill.

Tribes also have to wait two years to exercise jurisdiction over non-Indians. But tribes can petition the Department of Justice for something earlier.

"Today represents a historic moment in the nation-to-nation relationships between tribes and the federal government. Now that the tribal provisions have been enacted and protection for all women reauthorized, justice can march forward,” Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a press release.

Get the Story:
North Olympic Peninsula tribal leaders attend Obama's bill-signing in D.C. (The Peninsula Daily News 3/8)
Sen. Murray honored for work on violence measure (The Peninsula Daily News 3/8)
Violence Against Women Act reauthorization hailed in Indian Country (Minnesota Public Radio 3/7)
Obama enacts domestic abuse law (Gannett News 3/7)
President Obama Signs VAWA (Fronteras 3/7)
President Obama signs Violence Against Women Act (CBS News 3/7)
Obama signs revised Violence Against Women Act, aid for vulnerable Alaskans (The Alaska Dispatch 3/7)
Obama signs Violence Against Women Act into law (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer 3/7)
Obama Signs Expanded Anti-Violence Law (The New York Times 3/7)
Obama signs bill that gives tribes authority over non-Indians in domestic violence cases (AP 3/7)

An Opinion:
Thanh Tan: What the Violence Against Women Act means for Washington (The Seattle Times 3/8)

Relevant Links:
Video of Signing Ceremony | Transcript of Remarks by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden

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