by Hallie Sacks
WASHINGTON— Several witnesses told a Senate committee Thursday that the recently passed Tribal Law and Order Act, which aims to improve health and justice within tribal communities, has been effective but efforts need to continue to curb the unusually high crime rates on Indian land.
The hearing, held by the Committee of Indian Affairs, was called to gauge the effectiveness of the act, which was passed July 29, 2010. The law improves communication between sovereign tribal justice systems to the federal justice system and provides resources to fight domestic violence and drug abuse—two problems rampant in native communities.
Since the law passed, cooperation between native justice officials and federal officials has been the past year’s biggest achievement. District attorneys work alongside Indian liaisons to ensure tribal cases are handled properly; native courts can send serious offenders to federal prisons; and more prosecutors, attorneys and officers have been appointed in native jurisdictions.
Native Council Member Ivan Posey, a member of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes in Wyoming, supports the changes. “In the past calls to police have gone unanswered because there is only one person on duty and he is across the reservation,” said Posey. This year, however, the number of police on the street has jumped from six to 26, he said.
The success in the Shoshone and Arapaho territory, however, is unusual when compared to other tribes. The Wyoming tribe is one of two tribal lands granted increased support for showing excellence in justice. While six more territories are becoming part of this initiative, the majority of tribes are still only experiencing minor improvements.
According to Troy Eid from the Indian Law and Order Commission, a group of nine volunteers that help provide resources in support of the act, the fundamental issues tribal communities will continue to face are the “unchanged laws still in place from 1885 when the government was playing a role to forcibly assimilate native people.”
For this reason, the Tribal Law and Order Act fails to grant native law enforcement jurisdiction in neighboring areas. “We run the danger,” Chief Judge Theresa Pouley of the Tulalip tribe said to the council, “that a drunk driver can race to the border, putting lives in danger, and the police cannot do anything about it.”
Rather than solely challenge issues of jurisdiction, the Tribal Law and Order Act also calls for preventative measures. After staggering statistics surfaced that one in three Indian women will be rape victims in their lifetime and half of all juveniles in federal prisons are of native heritage, training to help victims of domestic abuse are widespread.
Alcohol and drug-abuse education efforts are also increasing. The high crime rates throughout Indian territories (on average two and a half times higher than the rest of the country) are largely attributed to substance abuse. In his testimony, Posey claims nearly 100% of crimes in his district involve alcohol.
It has been over a year since the Tribal Law and Order Act became effective, and though there are still many challenges, most remain optimistic. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) the chairman of the Committee of Indian Affairs attests the hearing was a success. “I am so glad to hear from the tribes and the people involved in the process. We heard a lot of good responses and the hope is that some of the laws will continue to be improved.”