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.