Nestled at the base of the Blue Mountain foothills, near the Oregon-Washington border, is the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation of Oregon. Just three hours east of Portland, the Northwestern tribal nation sweeps across a picturesque 172,000 acres, with winding roads curving along the Umatilla River that cuts through it.
A member of the Umatilla Indian Reservation since 2002, Desireé Coyote describes her community as a warm and welcoming place where everyone says hello and attends local celebrations. Tribal leaders and members, she told RH Reality Check, “have the heart of the community in their mind and heart all the time,” and—like her—want to move the Umatilla Indian Reservation forward “to a more positive community.”
Yet, in her role as Umatilla Tribes’ Family Violence Services program manager, Coyote is often confronted with the aftershock of a decades-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that severely restricted tribal sovereignty and, as a result, puts the safety—and lives—of Native American women at risk. That opinion, issued in the 1978 Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe case, bars federally recognized tribes from exercising criminal jurisdiction over non-Native defendants, including those who commit acts of domestic violence against tribal members on the reservation.
With the contentious reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) last year, that 35-year-old decision was partially overturned in an effort to address the disproportionately high rates of domestic and sexual violence against Native American women. Under Section 904 of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, most of the United States’ 566 federally recognized tribes will now have the power to arrest and prosecute non-Natives who assault Native intimate partners, or violate protection orders, in Indian country come March 2015.
The Umatilla Tribes of Oregon, however, began to exercise this special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction as of February 20. That month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that, as part of a pilot project, Umatilla—along with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington—would be the first tribes in the country to test this historic expansion before it takes effect nationwide.
“These tribal [and] non-tribal families living on the reservation all deserve the right [to] equal access to services and equal protection in regards to intimate partner violence,” Coyote told RH Reality Check. “It is key not only for today’s generation, but for future generations.” …
Read more of my latest for RH Reality Check here: http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2014/04/16/inside-pilot-project-grants-tribal-authority-domestic-violence-cases/