Share story

It was Chief Seattle Days, and a hooligan slugged it out with a tribal police officer after a high-speed chase on the Suquamish reservation.

The tribe took its attempt to prosecute the man for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the tribe lost, in a 1978 decision that found tribes don’t have jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians.

But in its ruling, the high court also explicitly stated Congress could always change that. And with Thursday’s passage of the Violence Against Women Act, Congress has done just that.

“It is historic,” said Robert Anderson, professor and director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington Law School. “It is a great day for Indian Country and a huge legal victory.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Most of the Supreme Court decision stands — tribes still can’t prosecute non-Indians for most crimes. But in cases of domestic violence, it’s a new day.

Under the legislation, tribes may elect to prosecute non-Indians for crimes of domestic violence, date violence and violation of protection orders, instead of turning them over to local, state or federal officials — which still retain jurisdiction, for tribes that don’t want to prosecute.

But for tribes that do, the legislation allows them to investigate, prosecute, convict and sentence non-Indians who assault Indian spouses, intimate partners or dating partners, or who violate protection orders in Indian Country.

The legislation also clarifies that tribal courts may issue protective orders against any offender, regardless of race.

Right now, tribal courts have no authority at all to prosecute a non-Indian, even if the offender lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member.

Yet non-Indians commit more than 85 percent of all violent crimes against Native women, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The expanded jurisdiction would not go into effect for two years after enactment, to allow time to gear up for tribes that want to use the authority to prosecute, which remains optional.

At Suquamish, the legislation is a bit of victory for the tribe 35 years later.

“It’s a small but measurable step toward restoring our sovereignty in our tribal courts, and I am happy about that,” said Leonard Forsman, tribal chairman.

“We are all very pleased, we are just thrilled,” said Donna McNamara, prosecutor for the Suquamish Tribe. “It has been a problem when tribal members have been victims of domestic violence and there has been no way for the community to handle that.

“The reason this is very important to us is these perpetrators have often escaped any responsibility or accountability for their actions.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.