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January 22, 2024 HUMAN RIGHTS

Empowering Tribal Nations: The Transformative Impact of VAWA 2013 and 2022 on Tribal Jurisdiction

by Chia Halpern Beetso, Virginia Davis, and Kelly Stoner

The situation in many Tribal communities is compelling and urgent: American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) experience the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence in the nation. The vast majority of these victims report being victimized by a non-Indian offender. This interracial violence is particularly troubling because, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe in 1978, the ability of Tribal justice systems to hold non-Indians accountable for crimes committed on their lands has been limited by federal law. This restriction on Tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians has greatly impeded Tribal governments’ ability to address crimes committed by non-Indians against AI/AN in Indian Country and left them reliant on federal or state justice systems that often failed to respond. In 2013 and 2022, crucial amendments were included in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that significantly restored Tribal jurisdiction and thereby provided better access to justice and protection to countless survivors in Tribal communities.

VAWA has been a pivotal piece of legislation aimed at improving the nation’s response to domestic and sexual violence since its inception in 1994. Each reauthorization of VAWA has included provisions designed to address violence in Tribal communities. The 2013 amendments to VAWA marked a significant turning point in addressing violence against Native women. One of the most crucial changes was the reaffirmation of Tribal courts’ authority to prosecute non-Native perpetrators of domestic violence and dating violence against Native women. This provision, known as the Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction (SDVCJ), was groundbreaking in removing restrictions that had prevented Tribal nations from addressing violence on their lands and ending a cycle of impunity for many offenders. 

VAWA has been a pivotal piece of legislation aimed at improving the nation’s response to domestic and sexual violence since its inception in 1994.

VAWA has been a pivotal piece of legislation aimed at improving the nation’s response to domestic and sexual violence since its inception in 1994.


The positive impacts of VAWA 2013 were documented by the National Congress of American Indians in VAWA 2013’s Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction Five-Year Report, (2018) which concluded that “[VAWA 2013] has fundamentally changed the landscape of Tribal criminal jurisdiction . . . [and] many communities have increased justice and safety for victims who had previously seen little of either.” The report also found, however, that Tribal implementation of VAWA 2013 had revealed additional jurisdictional gaps that undermined public safety in Tribal communities. For example, tribes complained that they were encountering offenders who had abused their children along with their adult partners and the crimes committed against the children fell outside the scope of SDVCJ. Similarly, if a domestic violence offender assaulted a responding officer, resisted arrest, or committed witness intimidation, the tribe could only prosecute for the domestic violence offense.

In 2022, Congress responded by enacting amendments to the VAWA 2013 Tribal jurisdiction provisions that include additional categories of criminal conduct that can be prosecuted in Tribal courts against non-Indians. Specifically, VAWA 2022 builds on VAWA 2013 and reaffirms Tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians for domestic violence, dating violence, protection order violations, sexual assault, stalking, sex trafficking, child violence, assault of Tribal justice personnel, and obstruction of justice. This shift represents another historic milestone in further recognizing the inherent rights of Tribal governments to protect their citizens and uphold justice in their communities.

The American Bar Association (ABA) adopted resolutions in support of these VAWA Tribal jurisdiction provisions prior to the enactment of both VAWA 2013 and VAWA 2022. The ABA has also adopted a series of other related resolutions such as resolutions responding to the interrelated crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and resolutions supporting the enactment of the Tribal Law and Order Act and in support of the recommendations of the Indian Law and Order Commission and the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence.

It is important to note that neither VAWA 2013 nor VAWA 2022 alter existing state or federal jurisdiction over crimes committed on Tribal lands, and Tribal governments that choose to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians must comply with a number of procedural requirements such as providing an attorney to defendants who cannot afford one, including non-Indians in Tribal jury pools, and ensuring that presiding judges are sufficiently law-trained. In another important affirmation of the legitimacy of Tribal courts, VAWA 2022 also clarified that a defendant prosecuted in Tribal court must exhaust all Tribal remedies before seeking habeas relief in federal court.

The Tribal jurisdiction provisions in VAWA have had a significant impact on Tribal communities across the United States. Native women, who were once vulnerable to violence with little recourse, now have a more robust legal framework to protect their rights and seek justice in their own communities. This change sends a clear message that violence will not be tolerated, regardless of the perpetrator’s ethnicity.

Additionally, the restoration of Tribal sovereignty through the 2022 amendments has empowered Tribal nations to take greater control over their own affairs. This shift is not only crucial for addressing violence against Native women but also for building stronger, more self-reliant communities. It reflects a broader recognition of Tribal governments as legitimate and capable authorities and underscores the vital role of Tribal courts in ensuring justice and protection for their citizens.

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Chia Halpern Beetso

Tribal Courts Specialist at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute

Virginia Davis

Policy and Strategy Consultant, Member of the ABA Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence

Virginia Davis is a consultant who works with tribal nations and nonprofits on issues related to violence against women. Previously, she served as Senior Advisor at the National Congress of American Indians for nearly 15 years. From 2009-2012, she served as the Deputy Director for Policy at the Office on Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Kelly Stoner

Victim Advocacy Legal Specialist at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute