Debra Krol, The Arizona Republic

Statewide leaders addressing Indigenous peoples' efforts to deal with the nationwide epidemic of domestic violence and the missing and murdered Indigenous women and persons issue celebrated a partial victory as President Joe Biden signed a bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act on Wednesday.

“The Pascua Yaqui Tribe takes great pride in its role in the Tucson community to provide a safe and healthy environment for its members and patrons of our businesses. With enactment of this legislation today, we will harness our criminal justice expertise to expand our public safety initiatives," said Pascua Yaqui Tribal Chairman Peter Yucupicio, who attended the formal signing. He thanked Congress and Biden for their support in seeking justice for victims and holding offenders accountable in his tribal community. 

Under the reauthorized act, which was passed as part of a $1.5 trillion appropriations bill that will fund the federal government through September, tribal justice systems will receive expanded authority and more resources to deal with domestic violence committed on tribal lands by non-Native perpetrators. The act also expands tribal jurisdiction to safeguard children and other tribal members from sex crimes and stalking, and extends protections to tribal police officers.

Tribes cannot prosecute crimes that occur off tribal land, or crimes committed by non-tribal members. But the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA, which was originally enacted in 1994, included provisions that expanded tribes' ability to prosecute non-Indian defendants in domestic violence cases on their tribal lands. 

That was important to tribes because the National Institute of Justice reported that most such crimes are committed by non-Indians. The Association on American Indian Affairs said that homicide is the third leading cause of death of Indigenous women between 10 and 24 years of age, and is the fifth leading cause of death between ages 25 and 34, for Native women in the United States.

The reauthorized legislation will enhance tribal access to national criminal information databases, reestablish tribes' ability to place convicted violent offenders in the federal prison system and establish pilot programs in Alaska similar to one pilot program that the Pascua Yaqui Tribe's justice system in Arizona operates.

That tribe is the only one in Arizona that has exercised jurisdiction over non-Indian domestic violence offenders under the pilot program. It has prosecuted more than 80 cases since 2013 with 37 convictions.

Yucupicio testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in December, where he called for more tribal-focused provisions, including for crimes against children and elders, and expanding tribal jurisdiction to cover more incidents.

He said that the tribal court system could have prosecuted more such cases if that expansion had been in place sooner. Yucupicio noted examples where the lack of jurisdiction barred the tribe from trying a case or cases as he presented the tribe's case for more authority in domestic violence prosecutions. For example, the tribal justice system could not include a crime committed against a second victim in a domestic violence incident, or prosecute a defendant in a pending case as he threatened the victim's new boyfriend.

Local advocate and mental health professional Debbie Nez Manuel was happy to hear that the legislation included funding to tribes, with reimbursements to tribal justice systems for the extra expense of investigating and prosecuting domestic violence crimes and providing more resources. "This creates more opportunities to greatly increase safety for women," said Manuel, a Navajo Nation member. "It's up to tribes to figure out how to update their processes and policies," she said. 

Manuel, who has worked with victims of domestic violence and on prevention initiatives, also said that nonprofit groups in communities not directly associated with tribal nations should also see the benefits of the VAWA resources. She added that more collaboration between rural, urban and tribal communities could help address the issue, as many offenses are committed in off-reservation communities. Manuel said that a combination of lack of attention from county sheriffs, little or no access to broadband internet or even basic phone service inhibits local law enforcement's ability to respond to or investigate incidents.  

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tweeted congratulations. 

Rep. Greg Stanton was an original co-sponsor of the reauthorization act and has been an advocate for tribal VAWA initiatives during his terms in Congress. He called the measure "long-overdue" and said the measure "will save lives here in Arizona, and address countless barriers survivors experience in seeking justice."

"We made important improvements to this landmark law by expanding victim services and adding critical legal protections for survivors, especially Native women and girls — a huge step forward to address the MMIW crisis,” said Stanton, D-Ariz.

"Finally!" said Arizona Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, a Democrat from Chandler. Jermaine, a descendant of the White Earth Nation, an Ojibwe tribe, is one of the leaders of a special task force authorized by the Arizona Legislature to study the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and other people, known as MMIW.

Although the tribal provisions of the VAWA weren't everything tribes were hoping for, she said, the renewed act did include a provision to create special domestic violence prosecution districts that would include both tribal and off-reservation lands deal with non-Native offenders. "We're talking about how the state can coordinate with tribes on these issues," she said. Jermaine also said that Pascua Yaqui's successful program serves as a model for other tribal justice systems.

Jermaine also noted that several bills making their way through the Arizona Legislature will help address the issue. One such bill, sponsored by Sen. Victoria Steele, would raise the time limit for emergency protection orders to seven days, which would allow victims more time to get to a place of safety. The MMIW task force is also in the reauthorization process and would also include boys and men, since the task force learned that all genders are subject to trafficking and violence. 

The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center thanked several senators for fast tracking the Senate version of the bill. “The Violence Against Women Act is an important step forward in addressing jurisdictional gaps that leave Native women and children vulnerable,” said Lucy R. Simpson, the center's executive director, and member of the Navajo Nation. “By strengthening and restoring Tribal jurisdiction and providing necessary resources to Tribal governments through VAWA, Tribes will be better equipped to keep their communities safe and ensure justice for Native women.”

Both Arizona senators also signed on as co-sponsors. Pablo Sierra-Carmona, a spokesperson for Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, said that the VAWA reauthorization had been a priority for her, including the 2013 reauthorization. "So getting this win into the government budget bill is personal for her," Sierra-Carmona said.

Sinema said her interest in supporting women and children in danger from domestic violence or trafficking arose during her first job working in a domestic violence shelter. "The tribal provisions in the VAWA reauthorization is a really big deal," said Sinema.

In Arizona, which has the third-highest rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women, this expanded ability is of even greater importance. Combined with Savannah's Act, which prioritizes tribal access to resources such as federal criminal information databases needed to respond effectively to missing and murdered Indian cases, she said, the expanded ability of tribes to prosecute non-Natives for crimes against women and girls "offers tribes governments greater tools to protect women."

But even without everything the tribes asked for, the newest provisions and continuance of earlier ones were welcome news. "Our experience tells us that with VAWA, we have a long-term solution that is tied directly to tribal historic authority of protecting our people," Yucupicio said. "Tribes know best about what policies and enforcement strategies work in tribal communities."