Expanded Tribal Court Jurisdiction Helps Address Violence Against Indigenous Women

Because tribal courts have been stripped of their sovereignty, violence against Indigenous women has long been a problem. But recent advances have restored partial criminal jurisdiction to tribes.

Molly Simons is an Institutional Giving Intern at Sanctuary for Families. A senior at Trinity College, she is writing a thesis about violence against Indigenous women. ________________________________________________________________________________

While only referencing the U.S., this blog post will use Indigenous to refer to American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities and members.

Through legislative and judicial decisions, the U.S. federal government has finally started to allow tribal courts to try non-Indigenous defendants when they commit certain crimes against Indigenous tribe members on tribal land. This fight for expanded jurisdiction has been going on since the inception of the U.S., largely through advocacy work against federal overreach into tribal sovereignty. The Violence Against Women Act’s (VAWA) reauthorizations in 2013 and 2022 have been the culmination of this advocacy, expanding tribal court jurisdiction in significant ways.

To understand these recent expansions, it helps to know a brief history of tribal court criminal jurisdiction

Government overreach into tribal court jurisdiction began in 1883, when Crow Dog, a member of the Brule Sioux Tribe, was tried for murdering fellow tribal member Spotted Tail on reservation land. The Sioux Tribal Court handled the case, Ex parte Crow Dog, internally, but the US Territory of Dakota however, declared the Sioux decision insufficient and demanded the hanging of Crow Dog. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the federal government did not have jurisdiction to try a crime committed by one Indigenous person against another Indigenous person if the crime occurred on reservation land or in Indigenous space.

Congress, which did not want to leave Indigenous power unchecked, reacted by passing the Major Crimes Act of 1885, which gave the federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over 15 major crimes—even if those crimes were committed on Indigenous lands by Indigenous defendants. The Major Crimes Act, still in effect today, not only stripped tribal courts of their sovereignty over those crimes, but also stripped them of decades of funding and money. Tribal courts were left without the resources to pursue domestic violence cases, leaving Indigenous space—particularly the space occupied by women—open for crime.

In 1978, tribal courts’ jurisdiction was narrowed even further. In Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, the Supreme Court ruled that tribal courts did not have the right to try non-Indigenous defendants—even for crimes committed on Indigenous lands against Indigenous people. The ruling reversed a 1976 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that upheld the power of the Suquamish Tribal Court to try two non-Indigenous defendants for reckless driving, resisting arrest, and assault. The tribe argued, and the lower court agreed, that since the tribe had never ceded the power to try non-Indigenous defendants and Congress had never “expressly terminated” said power, the tribal court should have full jurisdiction. The Supreme Court disagreed and claimed that “absent an express congressional delegation of power,” the Suquamish Tribal Court did not have the jurisdiction to try the non-Indigenous defendants.

With tribal courts unable to prosecute non-Indigenous offenders, reservations became open space for crime and violence, especially violence against Indigenous women and children.

But, recent VAWA Expansions have sought to restore some criminal jurisdiction to tribal courts

Because tribal courts have been stripped of their sovereignty, violence against Indigenous women has long been a problem. But recent advances have restored partial criminal jurisdiction to tribes.

The Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA 2013) and tribal court jurisdiction known as Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction (SDVCJ) have opened doorways for tribes, allowing tribes to expand their courts’ jurisdiction and convict more defendants. While this was available and welcomed by tribes of the Lower 48 states in the U.S., virtually no tribes in Alaska were able enact this jurisdiction because of differences in the designation of their land. Furthermore, the crimes were limited, restricting tribes ability to put away abusers and defendants who still commit violent crimes outside the approved jurisdiction.

Then, in 2022, Congress reauthorized VAWA again (VAWA 2022) and expanded jurisdiction in Special Tribal Criminal Jurisdiction (STCJ), that allowed Alaska tribes to participate in these cases. The pilot program in 2013 in the Lower 48 that helped tribes implement SDVCJ was incredibly successful, allowing tribes to prosecute and defend their citizens. Similarly, the federal government hopes to enact a pilot program to help Alaska native communities navigate this jurisdiction.

Next steps

These expansions have been a reaction to tireless advocacy from Indigenous people and while tribes work to implement STCJ, there is still much work to be done to educate attorneys and other organizations about this jurisdiction.

You are not alone

For Indigenous-centered resources:

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help. Sanctuary’s services are free and available to all survivors living in New York City, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital or immigration status.

Our services include:

No More Stolen Sisters: Violence Against Indigenous Women and the Fight to Raise Awareness

From almost nonexistent media attention to jurisdictional neglect, Indigenous victims of gender-based violence are often overlooked despite being grossly overrepresented as victims of violence.

Molly Simons is an Institutional Giving Intern at Sanctuary for Families. A senior at Trinity College, she is writing a thesis about violence against Indigenous women. ________________________________________________________________________________

While only referencing the U.S., this blog post will use Indigenous to refer to American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities and members.

Sometime before 2016, a young Indigenous woman—let’s call her Rose—was strangled by her husband (for various reasons involving the privacy of victims and minors, the woman’s name and age remain confidential.) Rose was an enrolled member of the Yaqui Tribe of Arizona; her husband, Frank Jaimez, was 19 years old and non-Indigenous. Frank was prosecuted for the strangling and convicted of a crime, but he still returned to the house with Rose. And the abuse continued (ADI).

Indigenous women (and two-spirit people) are grossly overrepresented as victims of violence

Frank’s abuse toward Rose reflects a larger historical trend of violence against Indigenous people that stems from an invasion of Indigenous space—both Indigenous land and bodies. In particular, Indigenous women and other gender and sexual minorities are grossly overrepresented as victims of violence.

Rose is part of the more than 4 in 5 Indigenous women who have experienced violence in their lifetime, and the scale of this problem is immense: over 5,700 Indigenous women and girls are considered to be missing or murdered. Over half of Indigenous women have also reported experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime, 96 percent of which has been at the hands of non-Indigenous perpetrators. And these statistics are deadly—for Indigenous women and girls, the homicide rate is over six times higher than it is for their white counterparts.

Similarly to Rose, more than half of Indigenous women have experienced physical violence by intimate partners in their lifetime. Again, these statistics are fatal. Indigenous women victims of intimate partner violence lose an average of 38.3 potential years of life per death in a study of 16 states.

Indigenous people who identify as two-spirit, a blanket term often used to describe queer and LGBTQ+ Indigenous people, similarly face heightened levels of violence. One recent report found that nearly all participants who identified as two-spirit had experienced sexual assault, with almost 90% experiencing two or more forms of violence.

These statistics are staggering and yet still relatively unknown to the public.

This is because Indigenous women are at the crossroads of oversight

From almost nonexistent media attention to jurisdictional neglect, Indigenous women who experience violence are often overlooked and left to advocate for themselves and their family members and friends alone.

According to a report released by the Urban Indian Health Institute in 2017, of about 500 cases of murdered Indigenous women and two-spirit people, 95 percent were not covered by national or international media. Media response is drastically different for missing and murdered people of other races, especially missing upper and middle-class white women and girls whose stories often garner the attention of the nation.

Jurisdictional oversight continues to plague federal and state court systems that should assist Indigenous women in winning convictions over their abusers, many of whom are not Indigenous. This oversight is a lasting impact of a 1978 decision in which the Supreme Court held that tribal courts had lost the authority to try non-Indigenous perpetrators when the tribes had become dependents of the United States. As a result, many crimes against Indigenous women simply went unprosecuted. Tribal courts often lacked the resources to try non-Indigenous people, and the federal government often lacked the resolve to pick up those cases, so Indigenous communities became playgrounds for crime and violence.

Steps in the right direction

In September 2016, Frank Jaimez, the defendant from above, came home to find that Rose had propped the door to their house open, waiting for her daughter to come home. Frank demanded that Rose close the door, and the couple began arguing. During that argument, Frank picked up Rose’s property and smashed it on the ground. Fearful, Rose called the tribal police, who arrested Frank. This time, Frank was not only prosecuted, he was sent to prison by the Pascua Yaqui tribal court (ADI).

Until 2013 and the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), that prosecution in tribal court would not have been possible. But after advocacy from Indigenous activists, VAWA 2013 authorized tribal courts to prosecute domestic violence cases even when the abuser was a non-Indigenous person.

In the legal sphere, this increase of jurisdiction is crucial to helping women like Rose, but media attention for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls still falls short of adequate.

Thus, Indigenous advocates have turned to visual activism

The REDress Project by artist Jamie Black calls attention to the ongoing crisis of violence against Indigenous women. Black, a Métis and Finnish artist committed to raising awareness of the Movement for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, created a display showing empty red dresses hung from tree branches. The REDress Project garnered attention, and the movement grew, expanding to most of North America. This display of red dresses of all shapes and sizes hung in the trees has become a recognizable symbol in the fight against violence.

Another distinct symbol in the fight against violence against Indigenous women is a red handprint painted over the mouth. Seen first on Boston marathon competitor Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel (Kul Wicasa Oyate, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe), she painted the red handprint on her face to “break the silence of the violence happening on our Indigenous womxn and peoples“. The red handprint has gained recognition and has now been featured on billboard campaigns and in the first season of Canada’s Drag Race.

The fight continues

There is much to be done to continue the work of this political and artistic activism. Subsequent VAWA reauthorizations have awarded expanded jurisdiction to tribal courts, but there are still restrictions that infringe on tribal courts effectiveness.

Working to further these expansions through state government is LT. Governor Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) of Minnesota. Flanagan recognizes that the necessity for electing Indigenous women and people to positions of power saying, “When we are at the table, the conversations change“. These conversations have helped turn attention and resources to the issue, highlighting the need for more Indigenous women and people in power.

A continual push from both Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous people can emphasize the importance of expanded jurisdiction. Promoting and talking with Indigenous activists, as well as calling members of Congress, are all ways to amplify Indigenous voices and issues.

Indigenous space has long been infringed upon, but continued legislative advocacy and visual activism will help tribes in their fight to regain long overdue jurisdiction and sovereignty.

You are not alone

For Indigenous-centered resources:

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help. Sanctuary’s services are free and available to all survivors living in New York City, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital or immigration status.

Our services include:

Pride Month 2023: Empowering LGBTQ+ Survivors

Sanctuary had the honor and privilege of participating in this year’s NYC Pride March and supporting LGTBQ+ survivors of gender violence.

Celebrating LGBTQ+ Survivors at NYC Pride

In the midst of the floats lining up on Fifth Avenue and the massive crowds gathering for NYC Pride, a young woman approached Sanctuary staff who were preparing to march. She revealed that she had been a client of Sanctuary’s Campus Advocate Project, which provides legal consultations and representation to student survivors of gender-based violence, including sexual violence. With the help of Sanctuary’s attorneys, she was able to leave her abusive relationship and go back to school.

That kind of story is what Sanctuary is all about. For almost 40 years, Sanctuary has been a pillar of the community, providing holistic, comprehensive services for all survivors of gender violence, empowering clients, and enabling them to attain safety, healing, and self-determination.

Within this mission is an unwavering commitment to equal rights and freedom from discrimination. Each June, Pride Month celebrates the strength and resilience of the LGBTQ+ community, but the work is year-round. Anti-LGBTQ+ hate is on the rise, with ADL and GLAAD reporting over 350 anti-LGBTQ+ incidents between June 2022 and April 2023. As the community continues to fight against discrimination, Sanctuary’s commitment to providing free and available service to all individuals, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity, is more important than ever.

“[Pride] was a joyous celebration of LGBTQ+ pride and a reaffirmation of the basic human right to love whomever we choose. This is evermore critical in these times of increasing attacks on gay and transgender rights.” – Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director

Visibility has always been at the core of social change, and the NYC Pride March served as a powerful platform to uplift queer survivors. Our dedicated staff members, survivors, and supporters proudly marched through the streets, spreading the word about Sanctuary’s services and unapologetically demanding an end to gender-based violence. The cheers and applause from the crowd served as a powerful testament to the collective determination to eradicate violence and create a safer future for all.

“It was incredible to not only feel like Sanctuary was out in full support of the LGBTQ+ community, but also the cheers we got for our signs and for believing survivors was everything,” said Geny Kimbrell, Senior Manager of Special Events, when reflecting on the march on Sunday. “You could see the looks on people’s faces as they read our signs, and that felt meaningful.”

In the midst of this ongoing fight, the Pride Parade shined a spotlight on the hope, love, and joy that has defined the movement. Seeing survivors, allies, and activists come together to celebrate love, equality, and acceptance was a profound reminder that change is possible, inspiring us to carry the momentum forward and continue the fight for a world free from violence, discrimination, and inequality.

Intimate Partner Violence in the LGBTQ+ Community

While narratives around gender violence often center on heterosexual relationships, intimate partner violence does not discriminate based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. In fact, abuse occurs in LGBTQ+ relationships at similar or even higher rates than in the general population. The HRC reported that 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner compared to 35% of straight women. Trans and non-binary folks are also at a heightened risk for violence, with 54% experiencing some form of intimate partner violence.

LGBTQ+ individuals facing intimate partner violence often encounter unique barriers when seeking help. Fear of outing themselves, concerns about discrimination from service providers, and the limited availability of LGBTQ+-affirming resources can hinder survivors from reaching out. Survivors may face multiple forms of discrimination based on intersecting identities such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or disability. These unique challenges often lead to silence, isolation, and difficulty seeking help.

Events such as NYC Pride present a rare opportunity to acknowledge the complex realities of navigating care as an LGBTQ+ survivor, as well as raise awareness about the services available to the millions who attended the parade. Even as Sanctuary continues to provide services to more than 7,200 survivors a year, greater efforts–education, advocacy, and changing the narrative–are essential to ending discrimination and harassment and creating a world free from gender violence.

Learn more about intimate partner violence in the LGTBQ+ community.

You Are Not Alone: Resources and Services for Queer Survivors

We want to remind our fellow New Yorkers that Sanctuary’s services are free and available to ALL individuals regardless of race, color, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, national origin, citizenship status, or marital status. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help.

Learn more about safety planning and download our guide by clicking here.

For support on a national level, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

See below for some queer-specific resources:

The Trevor Project
(866) 488-7386 (24/7)

The Trevor Project’s mission is to end suicide among LGBTQ young people.

NYC Anti-Violence Project
(212) 714-1141 (24/7)

AVP empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected communities and allies to end all forms of violence through organizing and education, and supports survivors through counseling and advocacy.

The Network/La Red
(800) 832-1901 (24/7)

The Network/La Red is a survivor-led, social justice organization that works to end partner abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, kink, polyamorous, and queer communities.

Northwest Network
(206) 568-7777 (Mon–Fri, 9am-5pm)

NW Network supports queer & trans survivors in reconnecting to their self-determination through advocacy-based counseling and community education.

Stand with survivors and support our work by making a gift today.


Denim Day 2023: Standing Up Against Sexual Violence

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month — Learn about the compelling history of Denim Day, how sexual violence manifests in the context of abusive relationships, and how Sanctuary staff are taking action.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month a crucial time to rally together, educate ourselves about the harsh reality of sexual violence, and support survivors on their journey to healing. One of the most notable initiatives during this month is Denim Day, a global movement that transforms ordinary denim jeans into a powerful symbol of protest against sexual violence.

In this blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into the compelling history of Denim Day, explore how sexual violence manifests in the context of abusive relationships, and share our staff’s unforgettable experience participating in the NYC Denim Day March and Rally.

What is Denim Day?

Denim Day was born out of a desire to challenge and change a deeply flawed narrative surrounding sexual violence.

Sanctuary staff at the 2023 Denim Day March

In 1998, the Italian Supreme Court made a shocking decision to overturn a rape conviction. The justices argued that the victim’s tight jeans suggested she must have helped her attacker remove them, which they wrongly equated to consent. This outrageous ruling sent shockwaves through Italy and beyond, as it reinforced the damaging myth that clothing can determine responsibility for sexual assault.

Fired up and ready to fight back, women in the Italian Parliament staged a bold protest the very next day. They wore jeans to work in a defiant stand against the court’s decision and the misconceptions it perpetuated. This courageous act of solidarity soon blossomed into an international movement, with Denim Day now observed worldwide every April as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Sexual Violence Within Abusive Relationships

Sexual violence in the context of abusive relationships is a complex and often overlooked issue. Abusers often employ sexual violence as a weapon to exert power and control over their partners, using it to manipulate, degrade, and humiliate. It can take many forms, including rape, unwanted sexual contact, and sexual coercion.

Abusive relationships are characterized by a pattern of behaviors that are used to maintain power and control over the victim. This can include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Sexual violence is just one part of this pattern of abuse, but it can have lasting and devastating effects on the victim’s physical and emotional well-being.

Sexual violence in abusive relationships is often not recognized or reported, in part because of the shame and stigma that surrounds it. Victims may feel trapped, isolated, and powerless to leave the relationship, particularly if they are financially dependent on the abuser or have children together.

Understanding the complex ways sexual violence presents in the context of abusive relationships is crucial to supporting survivors and dismantling the systems that perpetuate abuse. By recognizing these intricate dynamics, we can better advocate for survivors and work toward effective prevention strategies.

Watch our webinar to learn more:

At Sanctuary, We #WearDenim

On April 26, 2023, Sanctuary staff members united for a cause dear to our hearts—the NYC Denim Day March and Rally. We proudly wore our denim as we marched across the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn Borough Hall to Foley Square, joining forces with fellow advocates, survivors, and supporters. Together, we raised our voices against sexual violence and domestic abuse, championing a culture of consent, respect, and safety for all.

Denim Quilt Project

As part of the efforts to commemorate Denim Day, Sanctuary organized a special art project involving staff, clients, and other community members.

We came together and decorated old pieces of denim with quotes and art to convey a variety of messages about sexual assault awareness. The denim squares were then pieced together into a quilt, resulting in a beautiful and meaningful symbol of the resilience and strength of survivors of sexual violence.

The completed quilt will be displayed at Sanctuary’s main office, where staff and clients can see it every day and draw inspiration from the stories behind each piece of denim. The quilt also serves as a reminder of the ongoing work needed to address sexual violence and support survivors.

This project is a powerful example of how creativity and community can come together to create something meaningful and impactful. It shows that even something as simple as a piece of denim can carry profound meaning and become a symbol of hope and healing.

You Are Not Alone: Resources and Services for Survivors

At Sanctuary for Families, we’re committed to standing with survivors every step of the way. Our comprehensive services include clinical, legal, shelter, and economic empowerment support, all tailored to meet each individual’s unique needs.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic or sexual violence in New York, please reach out to our hotline at 212-349-6009 or visit our Get Help page to learn more about our services.

For support on a national level, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Let’s stand together, rock our denim, and create a world free from sexual violence and domestic abuse. We believe in a brighter future for all and won’t stop fighting until we get there.

Stand with survivors and support our work by making a gift today.