Deborah Parker said it happened one night not far from the reservation.
A white man coaxed a Tulalip Indian woman into his vehicle. He drove until he thought he had entered tribal land. And then he beat her. He raped her. He left her for dead. While he assaulted her, the victim later told Parker how he blustered about how he’d get away with his crimes. He knew tribal police couldn’t legally arrest him, she said. And so he drove away thinking he was a free man.
It was sometime in the late 1990’s when Parker first heard this story. She was a domestic violence counselor for the Tulalip Tribe in northern Washington State. Raised on the reservation, an early victim of abuse herself, she said listening to the often-daily survival stories of other tribal members led to a moment of awareness. “There was a sense of lawlessness,” Parker said. “We had no way of handling justice.”
For more than three decades, the Tulalip, along with other tribes, had lost the legal authority to try non-Natives accused of committing major crimes on tribal lands. In 1978, the Supreme Court denied tribal courts the inherent right to prosecute any non-Indian living or working on the reservation.
Over the years, the inability to prosecute these kinds of crimes has led to what U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently described as “a public safety crisis in Indian Country.” Last November, a federally funded report detailed flaws in the broken tribal justice system and spelled out ways to fix some of the problems. Ultimately, the report found the American legal system had “significantly hamstrung (tribes) ability to ensure safety in Indian Country.”