U.S. Senator Tina Smith’s Bill to Give Justice to Survivors of Sexual Violence in Native American Communities Takes Key Step Forward

WASHINGTON, D.C. [2/10/22] —Yesterday, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said her bill to restore Tribal Nations’ rights to prosecute crimes of sexual violence—including assault, trafficking and stalking—took a key step forward in the Senate. Currently, Native communities cannot prosecute those crimes if they are committed by a non-Native member on Tribal land. 

Sen. Smith, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said her bill “Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act” was included in the legislation that will reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, legislation that expired in 2019. Sen. Smith’s bill aims to ensure justice for Native survivors of sexual violence by expanding Tribal jurisdiction to prosecute cases of domestic and sexual assault, sex trafficking, stalking, and other related crimes committed by non-Native offenders on Tribal lands.

“For far too long the federal government has failed Native survivors when it comes to prosecuting offenders,” said Sen. Smith. “Given the staggering rates of sexual violence committed against Native persons, it is critical that we pass this bipartisan VAWA reauthorization with my provision to provide Tribes with the tools to support survivors.”

In December 2021, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs considered this provision in an oversight hearing titled “Restoring Justice: Addressing Violence in Native Communities through VAWA Title IX Special Jurisdiction.”  The Committee heard testimony from administration officials, Tribal leaders, and legal experts on the importance of this expanded jurisdiction.

Reports from the National Institute of Justice found that over half of all Native American women—56 percent—and more than one in four men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes. And among those, almost all—97 percent of women and 90 percent of men—were victimized by a non-Native offender. Despite the alarming statistics, few survivors ever see justice.

The Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act is co-sponsored in the Senate by Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and in the House by Representatives Sharice Davids (D-KS) and Ruben Gallego (D-AZ). The legislation will be introduced as part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization.

The Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act aims to help survivors of sexual violence receive justice by:

  • Allowing Tribes to prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence, sex trafficking, stalking, and obstruction of justice committed against Tribal members by non-Native offenders.
  • Eliminating the requirement that offenders must have “sufficient ties” to the land, thereby ensuring that all non-Tribal member offenders can be prosecuted for their crimes.

The legislation has been endorsed by the following organizations: National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Women’s Resource Center, Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, Violence Free Minnesota, and Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

You can read a summary of the bill here.