Biden promises more justice on reservations
By JODI RAVE of the Missoulian
KALISPELL – On Sunday, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Joe
Biden said an Obama-Biden administration would increase federal
prosecutions in Indian Country and strengthen tribal court
jurisdiction over crimes occurring within reservation borders,
regardless of the race of the criminal.
“There will be a much, much, much heightened sensitivity to
legitimate causes within reservations that, quite frankly, we’ve just
been taking advantage,” said Biden, author of the 1994 Crime Bill.
Tribal justice systems “should have greater say. I tried to get that
in the original crime bill when I wrote it. I find it absolutely
fascinating that we have this dual jurisdiction.”
Native women, in particular, suffer when tribal jurisdictions overlap
with state and federal jurisdictions, creating an environment of
lawlessness, said Biden, in an interview with the Missoulian, after
speaking to a crowd of some 1,200 people at Flathead High School.
Tribes cannot prosecute a non-Native if crimes such as sexual assault
or domestic abuse happen on tribal lands. Meanwhile, one in three
Native women will be raped in her lifetime. More than 80 percent of
the time, the rapist is non-Native.
“We use that jurisdiction as rationale not to proceed against abuse
against women,” said Biden, D-Del., who also wrote the landmark
Violence Against Women Act.
The act now contains a much-heralded safety provision for Native
“We have the highest rate of rape of all industrialized nations in
the world,” Biden said. “The one thing I’m proudest of in my career
is we have changed the definition of what constitutes assault. It
used to be that, `She’s my woman.’ ”
“Indian or not, no one has the right to raise his hand to a woman in
anything other than self defense,” he said. “And as federal
prosecutors, when that crime involves someone who is not a member of
an Indian nation, we will see to it that it is prosecuted. We will
change the culture by doing that.”
Between 2004 and 2007, the United States declined to prosecute 62
percent of Indian Country criminal cases referred to federal
Biden is co-sponsor of the Tribal Law and Order Act, a bill
introduced in July by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. The act will expand
the authority of tribal police to make arrests for crimes committed
on tribal lands.
“Under an Obama-Biden Justice Department, you will have federal
prosecutors prosecuting these crimes,” said Biden, chairman of the
Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs. “It will be a
The act also calls for improvement of courts, jails, policing and
youth programs on reservation lands with already severely
understaffed law enforcement departments. For every 1,000 reservation
residents, there are less than two law enforcement officers, compared
to upward of six officers for every 1,000 residents on non-tribal
Finally, the Tribal Law and Order Act aims to increase sentencing in
tribal courts from one to three years.
Biden delivered his first campaign speech in Montana, a state where
presidential nominee Barack Obama has already made five appearances,
including a rally on the Crow Reservation in May. That stop marked
Obama’s first campaign visit to a reservation leading up to the
Directors for the campaign’s Montana office have organized an
aggressive effort throughout the state, where paid staff members have
been posted to all but one of the state’s seven reservations.
“We’re tapping into the excitement Barrack Obama is generating across
the country, but especially among the tribes where people are coming
together and are excited about a national campaign,” said Caleb
Weaver, an Obama spokesman. “We recognize that energy and excitement
and that’s why we’re putting out the resources with paid staff to get
people organized. People know if they get engaged, things can be
Rosemary Caye attended the Flathead High School rally to learn more
about Biden. She hoped the next U.S. president and vice president
would embrace Native people, a population treated as if invisible,
“What are our similarities? What are our dissimilarities?” said Caye,
a citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the
Flathead Reservation. “Let’s work together and start rubbing
shoulders. And if there are any type of racial barriers, let start
breaking those barriers and ask how we can make opportunities better
for the indigenous people here.”
Caye said she was most concerned about creating more economic
development opportunities for Native people. She said 96 percent of
the people in her community live below the poverty level.
Biden told his Kalispell audience that the entire U.S. economy was
an “anemic failure.”
Caye, who lives in Elmo, believes the Obama-Biden ticket
represents “fresh ideas and experience. Put the two together and I
think we’ll rock.”
Obama has said he will create a senior White House staff position for
a Native policy adviser. He has also promised to host an annual
summit of tribal leaders.
Biden said it’s time for the United States to end its “ultimate
benign neglect” of Native peoples.
“We’ve walked away from our responsibilities,” said Biden. “We
haven’t kept our promises. We haven’t abided by the treaties we’ve
had. We have not done what we said we were going to do as a nation.