TULALIP INDIAN RESERVATION, Wash. -- The Violence Against Women Act passed the U.S. Senate this month with a provision that would allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians in some abuse cases, closing a loophole that many Indian women say leaves them unsafe.
"People are not being held accountable for the crimes they commit against the women in my tribe," said Sydney Napeahi, a high school student here.
She was among those -- young, old and in between -- who gathered last week at a healing ceremony convened by Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes board of directors, seeking to call attention to the lack of jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian abusers on reservations. Non-Indians commit more than 85 percent of all violent crimes against Indian women, according to the Justice Department.
The bill passed the Senate, 78-22, but it heads to the House, where a similar bill died in the previous legislative session.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., vice chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus, is expected to play a key role. Her spokeswoman, Riva Litman, was noncommittal on the tribal provision. "The congresswoman is 100 percent committed to the reauthorization of VAWA and wants to get it on the president's desk as quickly as possible," Ms. Litman wrote in an email. "She wants to protect ALL victims of domestic violence while ensuring that everyone's constitutional rights are upheld."
Many Republicans see the provision as an unconstitutional power grab by the tribes that would deprive non-Indians of fundamental constitutional rights, according to The New York Times.
The bill was first passed in 1999, and had been reauthorized regularly until Congress allowed it to expire last year. It is the federal government's main response to domestic violence. It would provide a wide range of services, from money for transitional housing for women who have had to flee their homes to training for law-enforcement personnel.
It also includes language that would require services to victims regardless of sexual orientation, and would extend expedited visa procedures for immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.
Theresa Pouley, a judge on the Tulalip Reservation, said her court needs the power to punish abusers. "We know what is going on in Indian Country," she told women gathered at the healing circle. "One in three Native women are going to be raped in her lifetime. That is not OK."