Native American tribes may finally begin prosecuting sex assaults under the federal Violence Against Women Act, closing a legal loophole that allowed outsiders to get away with raping women on reservations.
The legislation, which was reauthorized in 2013, gave tribal courts jurisdiction to investigation and prosecute felony domestic violence cases involving Native American and non-Native suspects, but the tribes face challenges in implementing the law.
The federal law requires tribes to have courts with properly trained judges and attorneys, and that could prove too expensive for some tribes.
"There is no item bigger than taking care of women and children," said Peter Yucupicio, chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Tucson, Ariz.
He took part in a conference last week to help tribal leaders from Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota to learn what steps they must take to begin prosecuting domestic violence cases.
An estimated one-third of Native American women are victims of rape, and U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that a staggering 86 percent of those attacks are committed by non-Native men.
"What's happened through U.S. federal law and policy is they created lands of impunity where this is like a playground for serial rapists, batterers, killers – whoever, and our children aren't protected at all," said Lisa Brunner, executive director of Sacred Spirits First National Coalition.
She told Sky News her own daughters were raped and abused by a non-Native family friend, and another daughter was attacked two years ago by masked outsiders who came to the reservation to “hunt” Native women.
None of those attackers have been prosecuted, Brunner said.
"It's like a free range," Brunner said. "Come and do what you want, and they do come here hunting. I call it hunting because we're not the targets -- we're the bulls-eye."