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Bill enables tribal police to enforce federal laws, protects Native American rape victims


4 San Diego legislators support law; Rep. Hunter votes “no”

By Miriam Raftery
July 30, 2010 (Washington D.C.) - “If the Tribal Law and Order Act had existed 16 years ago, my story would be very different,” Lisa Marie Lyotte said, choking back tears in a White House press conference today. In 1994, Lyotte was raped and beaten on the Sioux Indian reservation where she lived; her children witnessed the attack.  Tribal police had a suspect, but federal authorities refused to prosecute.

Native American women suffer violent crime at a rate more than triple the national average; one in three Indian women is raped during her lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Calling the situation “an assault on our national conscience,” President Barack Obama today fulfilled a campaign promise made to tribal leaders by signing the Tribal Law and Order Act into law.


San Diego Congressional members Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego), Susan Davis (D-San Diego), Bob Filner (D-San Diego), and Darrell Issa (R-San Diego) all voted for the bill. Congressman Duncan D. Hunter (R-El Cajon), cast the lone San Diego vote against the bill.

The measure requires the Department of Justice to disclose data on cases it declines to prosecute, and enhances tribes’ authority to prosecute and punish criminals themselves. It expands efforts to recruit, train and retain Bureau of Indian Affairs and Tribal officers. Tribal and BIA officers will have greater access to improved criminal databases; the bill also strengthens tribal courts.

New training and guidelines for handling sex crimes and domestic violence cases will be supplied. Victims will receive better counseling and improved evidence collection to help increase convictions. (In Lyotte’s case, no doctor ever spoke with her about the rape, although a Tribal healthcare clinic treated her for her injuries.)

The bill also aims to prevent many cases of domestic violence and other crimes through enhanced programs to combat alcohol and drug abuse and to help at-risk youths.

In addition, the new law has provisions to help prevent counterfeiting of Native American craft items.

The bill has broad support from tribal leaders nationwide. “This is a monumental change for Indian country. I think the signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act ensures much needed recognition of the tremendous criminal justice gap faced by Indian country citizens,” said Walter Lamar, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana and former Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement.

Quoted in Indian Country Today, Lamar advised tribes to become familiar with the act “so that it will become a strong tool, but they must also be mindful of potential unintended consequences” such as costs for tribes to house prisoners and to comply with requirements to provide legal counsel for criminal defendants.

President Obama, in signing the measure, emphasized his intent to “send a clear message that all of our people—whether they live in our biggest cities or on our most remote reservations—have the right to feel safe in their own communities, and to raise their children in peace, and enjoy the fullest protection of our laws.” He added, “It’s not just our obligations under treaty and under law, but it’s also our values as a nation that are at stake.”

View a video of the President signing the bill, including the moving introduction by Lyotte.


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