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New VAWA provisions mean more violent crimes against Native women can be prosecuted in tribal court

President Joe Biden attends an event commemorating the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act with Ruth Glenn, CEO and President of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Wednesday, March 16, 2022, in the East Room of the White House.
Adam Schultz
White House
President Joe Biden attends an event commemorating the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act with Ruth Glenn, CEO and President of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Wednesday, March 16, 2022, in the East Room of the White House.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA), a law that protects thousands of women from domestic violence and abuse. The law is especially important for Indigenous women, who have some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the nation.

Last summer's Supreme Court ruling in Castro-Huerta v. Oklahoma means abusers can face prosecutors in tribal, federal and now state court.

It's a Friday night and Muscogee Nation Lighthorse Sergeant Lyndon Spears is doing his usual rounds in Tulsa, patrolling an area near South Peoria Avenue. He pulls his cruiser into a parking lot just a few blocks from the Arkansas River.

"This is just River Park Square, a little shopping center here on this side of town," he said over the chirping police radio.

The patrolling Spears does is about being proactive, just making sure his presence is known in the neighborhood — getting out, talking to people.

During the course of the night he makes traffic stops, arrests people for various crimes, but the most common call he gets is related to domestic violence.

"Domestic violence is probably our largest call volume," said Spears. "It can be anywhere from a minor argument between individuals-or it could be as bad as, you know, somebody getting hurt really bad."

In 2021, the Oklahoma Fatality Review Board found that the state ranks 8th in the nation for women being killed during a domestic violence incident.

According to the Department of Justice, Indigenous women experience some of the highest rates of domestic violence compared to their non-Native peers. So, it was a huge victory when the new Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) was passed earlier this year, including even more crimes offenders could be charged with.

Last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Castro-Huerta says the state now has the authority to prosecute non-Native offenders on reservation land, makes the reauthorization more complicated. Before Castro-Huerta, that was left up to tribal and federal systems.

Clint Johnson, the United States Attorney for Northern District of Oklahoma, will be handling some of those domestic violence cases from Muscogee, Cherokee and Quapaw Nations.

He says they are going to have to work together.

"It's going to be this collaborative effort to determine where's the best form for this particular case? Where can it get heard the quickest? Where can the most justice be done?"

Over the last three years, Johnson's office prosecuted some of the most serious domestic violence cases, that includes strangulation and others involving serious bodily injury.

Johnson's office though isn't just concerned with locking people up. The system needs to provide more for people, he says.

"I think what people also need to realize is that, you know, the criminal justice system is not just about putting people in jail for what they did wrong," explained Johnson. "It's about the services that you can provide to victims…and the services you can provide to offenders so that they don't re-offend."

The latest version of VAWA includes more charges tribal courts may prosecute non-Natives for when they commit crimes against Native people within reservation boundaries. That includes sexual assault, child abuse, stalking, sex trafficking, and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal land.

Shawn Partridge is the director of Muscogee Nation's Family Violence Prevention Program, which assists survivors of domestic violence. SHe celebrated the reauthorization of VAWA and thinks it is essential that victims get justice in tribal court.

"It is incredibly important," said Partridge. "Our community, our nation's ability to ensure safety, on their lands requires a criminal justice system and the ability to hold offenders accountable for crimes that are committed."

Partridge says holding offenders accountable in their own tribal courts is a big deal because, despite a pledge from state agencies to protect Native victims in the wake of the Castro-Huerta decision, Partridge says she's got cases from 2018 and 2019 that haven't had any charges filed.

"I have repeat offenders who are committing crimes of domestic violence," said Partridge. "Again, and following up on some cases and trying to find out where are they, what's the status, and that the state had not filed charges."

Steve Kunzweiler, the district attorney for Tulsa County, has said he wants to make sure charges are filed against offenders and lauded his department's handling of cases.

Muscogee Nation just passed new legislation called the Muscogee Nation Victim Protection and Jurisdiction Expansion Act-Cherokee Nation passed something similar last month. The tribal justice department researched state laws from across the country to bring theirs up to code to meet the needs of the new VAWA provisions.

Since the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision, her department has handled between 50-65 cases per month – a significant increase.

Partridge says one thing is important to remember about VAWA and the fact that cases can be tried in tribal courts

"Congress didn't give us anything," she explained. "They restored what was taken away. So that's why this criminal jurisdiction, this restoration of our jurisdiction, it is so significant."

After the Castro-Huerta decision last summer, Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor sent a memo to prosecutors and law enforcement saying they should apply the decision on all reservation-land, including trust land.

For now, some state, federal and tribal prosecutors are pledging to work together to figure out the best way forward for victims and their families amidst a shifting landscape.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist for KOSU