Marking an end to a two-year impasse, the U.S. House of Representatives today passed the Violence Against Women Act, leaving intact a controversial provision that authorizes tribal courts on reservation lands to prosecute non-Native offenders.
First passed by Congress in 1994, VAWA authorized funding to help pay for investigations and prosecutions of cases involving violence against women. In 2011, an attempt to tack on provisions to VAWA that would authorize tribal courts to prosecute non-Native individuals became a major sticking point. Unable to gain consensus between the House and the Senate, the legislation languished.
Prosecutorial authority for such crimes in Indian Country typically falls upon federal prosecutors. However, according to a 2010 Government Accountability report, U.S. attorneys between 2005 and 2009 declined to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse allegations brought forward from reservation lands.
Only by granting tribal courts authority to prosecute offenders can they be held accountable, Jessa Rae Growing Thunder of the Save Wiyabi Project told the Indy. “Non-Native offenders, they have the right to go onto tribal territory and abuse, rape—verbally, emotionally abuse,” Growing Thunder says. “They do all of these things and the sad realization about it is most tribal territories don’t even have the authority to protect these women.”
Earlier this month, the Senate in a bipartisan 78-22 vote passed VAWA, expanding the authority of tribal courts to prosecute non-Native offenders. Activists lauded the move but expressed concern that the House would again attempt to remove or water down the provision, as it did in 2011.
On Thursday, an effort by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to weaken the tribal court provision failed, the Washington Post reports. The House in a bipartisan 286-138 vote approved the Senate version of the bill, granting tribal courts the authority to prosecute non-Native offenders. The bill must now be signed by President Barack Obama before it becomes law.