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Press Release

Pilot Projects Allow Tribal Prosecution Of Non-Indian Abusers

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Arizona


For the First Time in More Than Three Decades

WASHINGTON – The Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona will be one of three American Indian tribes, joining the Umatilla Tribe of Oregon, and the Tulalip Tribe of Washington, to be the first in the nation to exercise special criminal jurisdiction over certain crimes of domestic and dating violence, regardless of the defendant’s Indian or non-Indian status, under a pilot project authorized by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013).

“This is just the latest step forward in this administration’s historic efforts to address the public safety crisis in Indian country.  Every day, we’re working hard to strengthen partnerships with tribal leaders and confront shared challenges – particularly when it comes to protecting Indian women and girls from the shocking and unacceptably high rates of violence they too often face,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.  “With the important new tools provided by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, these critical pilot projects will facilitate the first tribal prosecutions of non-Indian perpetrators in recent times.  This represents a significant victory for public safety and the rule of law, and a momentous step forward for tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”

“The VAWA Pilot Project provides the Pascua Yaqui Tribe the latitude to exercise a wider jurisdictional range to prosecute those who commit domestic violence crimes on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation,” stated U.S. Attorney John S. Leonardo.  “The Pascua Yaqui now have the legal ability to prosecute such cases in tribal court without recourse to the federal courts thus affording the tribe more local control in its efforts to protect victims of domestic violence on its reservation. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe was one of only three tribes in the country chosen for this national pilot project, and I congratulate the Tribe on its implementation of this historic legislation.”

“Making the Pascua Yaqui Reservation safe and secure has been very important to the Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council. The Tribal Council has made stopping violence against Native American women a top priority issue. Our judicial system, like all other judicial systems, will now have the opportunity to address offenders for wrongs committed against our most vulnerable community members,” says Peter Yucupicio, Tribal Chairman.  “We no longer have to simply stand by and watch our Native women be victimized with no recourse.  I’m here to put the community on notice, perpetrators will be held accountable in the tribe’s own justice system,” adds Raymond Buelna, Councilmember and Chairman of the tribe’s Public Safety Committee.

Although the provisions authorizing the special jurisdiction take effect generally in March 2015, the law also gives the Attorney General discretion to grant a tribe’s request to exercise the jurisdiction earlier, through a voluntary pilot project.  The authority to approve such requests has been delegated to Associate Attorney General Tony West.  Associate Attorney General West today congratulated tribal leaders of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Umatilla Tribe of Oregon, and the Tulalip Tribe of Washington on this historic achievement in letters to the three tribes.

“The old jurisdictional scheme failed to adequately protect the public – particularly native women – with too many crimes going unprosecuted and unpunished amidst escalating violence in Indian Country,” stated Associate Attorney General West.  “Our actions today mark an historic turning point.  We believe that by certifying certain tribes to exercise jurisdiction over these crimes, we will help decrease domestic and dating violence in Indian Country, strengthen tribal capacity to administer justice and control crime, and ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable for their criminal behavior.”

Since the Supreme Court’s 1978 opinion in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, tribes have been prohibited from exercising criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian defendants.  This included domestic violence and dating violence committed by non-Indian abusers against their Indian spouses, intimate partners and dating partners.  Even a violent crime committed by a non-Indian husband against his Indian wife, in the presence of her Indian children, in their home on the Indian reservation, could not be prosecuted by the tribe.  In granting the pilot-project requests of the Pascua Yaqui, Umatilla, and Tulalip tribes today, the United States is recognizing and affirming the tribes’ inherent power to exercise “special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction” (SDVCJ) over all persons, regardless of their Indian or non-Indian status.

As described in the Department of Justice’s Final Notice on the pilot project, today’s decisions are based on a diligent, detailed review of application questionnaires submitted by the tribes in December 2013, along with excerpts of tribal laws, rules, and policies, and other relevant information.  That review, conducted in close coordination with the Department of the Interior and after formal consultation with affected Indian tribes, led the Justice Department to determine that the criminal justice system in the Pascua Yaqui, Umatilla, and Tulalip tribes have adequate safeguards in place to fully protect defendants’ rights under the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended by VAWA 2013.

The Department of Justice is posting notices of the pilot-project designation on the Tribal Justice and Safety Web site ( and in the Federal Register.  In addition, each tribe’s application questionnaire and related tribal laws, rules, and policies will be posted on the Web site.  These materials will serve as a resource for those tribes that may also wish to participate in the pilot project or to commence exercising SDVCJ in March 2015 or later, after the pilot project has concluded.

For more information on VAWA 2013, please visit


Updated January 7, 2015