Part 1: “Shattered Silence: The MMIW Crisis and its Roots in Tribal Sovereignty Disputes

SAGE Development

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The MMIW crisis represents one of the most glaring human rights violations in Indian Country today. This crisis is significantly exacerbated by the U.S. government’s failure to recognize tribal nations as actual sovereign nations fully. When non-natives commit crimes on tribal lands, they often go unpunished due to a tangled web of jurisdictional issues, leading to a climate of impunity that fosters ongoing violence against indigenous women.

This legal complexity primarily arises from a series of court decisions and laws that limit the jurisdiction of tribal courts over non-natives. For instance, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978) held that tribal nations could not exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-tribal members. This decision effectively created a jurisdictional gap, where federal law enforcement, often located far away or unfamiliar with the local community, is responsible for responding to crimes on tribal lands.

Contrast this with the way the U.S. treats other sovereign nations. For example, if an American citizen committed a crime in Mexico or Canada, the case would likely be prosecuted under Mexican or Canadian law. Yet, in the case of indigenous tribes within the United States, the legal precedent does not follow the same logic due to the lack of full acknowledgment of tribal sovereignty. This discrepancy not only perpetuates violence but also belittles the sovereignty of tribal nations.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 addressed part of this problem by giving tribes limited jurisdiction over non-Indigenous people who commit domestic or dating violence against Native American women on reservations. However, this law does not extend to crimes committed by strangers or to crimes of sexual assault that occur outside of a domestic relationship. Hence, it doesn’t fully close the jurisdictional gap.

The lack of complete jurisdiction over non-tribal members results in many cases falling through the cracks and non-native perpetrators evading justice. This systemic failure significantly contributes to the MMIW crisis and reflects the federal government’s ongoing disrespect for tribal sovereignty.

Addressing the MMIW crisis, therefore, requires increased attention and resources and reconsidering the laws and precedents that undermine the sovereignty of tribal nations. Only then can we begin to close the jurisdictional gap and ensure justice for the victims of these heinous crimes.

Indeed, President Joe Biden’s administration has made strides toward addressing these systemic issues by reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2023. This reauthorization expanded tribal jurisdiction over non-Indigenous offenders on tribal lands, a critical step towards addressing the MMIW crisis and empowering tribal nations.

Under the updated provisions, tribes have increased authority to prosecute non-natives who commit violence against native women on tribal lands. Additionally, the law offers resources and funding to help tribal law enforcement and criminal justice systems adequately address these crimes.

However, these improvements are currently facing challenges in the court system. Some contend that the expanded tribal jurisdiction infringes upon the rights of non-native defendants, arguing that tribal courts do not offer the same constitutional protections guaranteed in federal and state courts.

These legal disputes undermine the progress made by the VAWA reauthorization, leaving tribal communities in a state of uncertainty and delaying much-needed justice for indigenous women.

Nonetheless, the ongoing court battles underline the continued importance of upholding tribal sovereignty. It’s essential to recognize that tribes, as sovereign entities, should have the jurisdictional power to protect their citizens and maintain law and order within their territories. Therefore, the legal recognition of tribal sovereignty, inclusive of robust jurisdictional authority, remains fundamental to addressing the MMIW crisis and numerous other systemic issues indigenous communities face.

The path to justice and respect for tribal sovereignty may be challenging. However, the concerted efforts towards strengthening the rights of tribal nations indicate a potential turning point in the nation’s commitment to honoring treaties, empowering indigenous communities, and rectifying historical wrongs. It is a journey we must undertake with urgency and determination.

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