How Native Women Built the Tribal Law and Order Act

As a Native feminist without apology, I’m thrilled that the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 has been passed to protect Native women from violence. I have fellow Native woman warrior and feminist to thank for coining that exact phrase, and in fact, the bill itself: my shero Ms. Sarah Deer.

Sarah and I first met through Facebook, then face-to-face at the Tribal Policy and Law Institute of America in St. Paul, MN. It was Indigenous feminist love at first sight.

A Mvskoke (Creek) from Kansas, Sarah is a Tribal Law Professor at William Mitchell College of Law and served on the advisory committee (while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer) for Amnesty International’s 2007 report “Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Violence“–the fire behind getting the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 passed.

It’s been a whirlwind three years–from the Amnesty report to the bill signing just days ago–but as Sarah says here it’s really been 500+ years in the making. And since women are the life-givers, matriarchs, and center of our communities, we all have a responsibility to keep fighting.

JY: How are you feeling right now?

SD: I’m feeling exhausted and exhilarated. We–the five or six of us women who were connected in making this happen–kept saying to each other outside the White House, “This is so surreal!”

JY: When did it become real for you?

SD: It became very real when Lisa Marie Iyotte–a Lakota woman from the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota who is a rape survivor–spoke [at the bill’s signing] and said unequivocally, “If the Tribal Law and Order Act had existed 16 years ago, my story would have been very different.”

JY: Watching Lisa Marie I couldn’t help but cry myself. I’m always reminded that when I feel emotional or show my feelings publicly, it’s a sign that I’ve survived the attempts to beat the feelings out of me as an Indigenous person.

SD: So true. This has been a long time coming. Our connection to Amnesty International was really crucial in getting us there. It hasn’t been an easy road since they are a non-Native organization, but I really trust them. They created an atmosphere for us to come as Native women and turned it over to us in a very respectful way.

Because of my connection to Amnesty, I was present at the White House for the bill signing, along with other members of the “Maze of Injustice” Advisory who have all worked so hard on these issues, including Charon Asetoyer, Vicki Ybanez, and Denise Morris.

JY: What has your role been in all of this?

Andrea Smith was a 2003/2004 fellow at Amnesty and encouraged them to do a report on the rape of Native women. Amnesty didn’t have any experience in working on Native women’s issues, so Andrea recommended that they contact me.

JY: How did it go from the report to where we are now?

It was pretty immediate. People have been working to get a bill in Congress on violence against Native women for years and years but it didn’t have a fire to catch. So many people in Congress are blind to Indian issues–they don’t even cross their radar.

But as I was on my way home from the report launch in DC in 2007, the Amnesty Media Relations folks got calls from staffers on Indian Affairs who were excited and wanted legislation. They thought that the report might be just the thing to make people pay attention, since it’s a real embarrassment to the U.S. about the realities of Native women’s lives. So they asked us to turn around and come back. I was very sick and going through chemotherapy at the time, but I went back.

First thing they planned was a Senate Committee on Indian affairs hearing, the first in front of any congressional body solely focused on any Native women’s issues. It’s been advocating and activism ever since.

We had big victories when Obama and Clinton included violence against Native women as part of their 2008 presidential campaigns. In fact, some of the language looked like it was lifted from the report. But we didn’t know until last week that it really even had a chance.

JY: So it’s been quite a whirlwind!

SD: It took 60 or 70 years for my favorite feminist from history, Susan B. Anthony, and all these women I looked up to as a little girl, to get the vote–and this took three years. It’s really been 500 years, but three years of putting it on paper. There are 10 or 12 more steps we need to do, of course, but now it feels like we can change the world.

JY: What is the most important part of this bill for people to know about?

That it requires Indian Health Service (IHS) to train their employees on how to respond to rape. That, to me, is huge. The experiences of Native women at IHS when they are raped or sexually assaulted are horrible, and for IHS not to know what to say or do in these instances is unconscionable. The bill now requires them to go on record with policy and procedure–and if that is the only thing that the bill accomplishes, we can be glad for that.

JY: Is there anything you would change about the bill?

SD: I’m always concerned about “law and order” language. It certainly doesn’t protect or help white women, so it’s not going to help Native women. We have to make sure that the systems we set up are Native women-centered.

I wish the bill had language overturning the destructive 1978 Oliphant decision, which concluded that tribal courts do not have jurisdiction over non-Indians. It’s not acceptable to have a non-Native person to come into the tribe and not be held accountable by the tribe.

JY: A thing that somewhat troubles me about the bill is a lot on criminalization and penalization. I’m a prison abolitionist in many senses and I’m very aware of how many Indigenous people are in the criminal justice system unfairly; but more importantly, that these entire systems are not our laws and not our systems.

SD: I agree with you 100 percent. You have to constantly challenge the idea that the Western criminalization system is the answer–it’s actually the cause of our problems. It’s difficult for people to understand that in order to change this, we have to give back sovereignty to tribes.

I’m so pleased that we are now collectively trying to keep things safer in our own communities–we don’t have to replicate white law and order.

JY: Why are you a Native feminist without apology?

I don’t know any other way to be. When you go to law school in the United States they try really hard to mould your brain into something else. U.S. culture is genocidal; they’re trying to brainwash you. I tried, but I can’t think without a Native woman’s lens, rather than trying to be a white woman feminist. I’ve tried hard; it’s not an easy thing to be a Native feminist and to try to feel normal. It was [a choice between] going and participating with the white woman’s movement, which I can’t do, or doing Native feminist, which is who I am.

JY: What would you say to encourage other Native feminists to continue the fight?

Every time I go to speak I think about Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute woman who in the late 19th century went to the White House, and I say to myself, I can do this speech.

I would encourage young Native women to latch onto someone who inspires you and let them give you energy. For me that person was Bonnie Clairmont, my Ho-Chunk mentor and an all-around rock star. She has been working for Native women’s rights for 30 years. I couldn’t have done any of this without her.

This [act] is a very, very tiny beginning, but now I really believe it can be done. I don’t know if I will see it in my lifetime, but I’m committed to making sure I do the work anyway.

JY: I want to thank Sarah Deer and countless other Native women, men and Two Spirit folks, as well as our families and our communities, for making this happen.

It’s important not to just look at the statistics in Native communities and feel shocked. One of the greatest teachings I ever learned was that what you see and hear, you take a responsibility for. We are all members of Mother Earth, and the continuing violence against our sisters is reason enough why this isn’t just a “Native” issue, but one that affects everyone.

As a young Native woman today I know it is my responsibility to ensure this work moves forward in many different ways, and to make sure that you are all part of it, too.

Jessica Yee is a self-described “Indigenous hip hop feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter.” A proud Two Spirit young woman from the Mohawk Nation, she is the founder and executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network–the only North American organization by and for Native youth working within the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health. Her writing can be found all over the feminist blogosphere, and she currently writes for Racialicious.

Photo: Sarah Deer and Jessica Yee in St. Paul, MN. Courtesy of the author.



    1. In 2005 the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center released the survey, “Sexual Assault Policies and Protocols Within Indian Health Service Emergency Rooms”, documenting the need for standardization of these policies and protocols.

      “There were no standardized sexual assault protocols within Indian Health Service, meaning that victims of sexually violent crimes may not be given rape kits that obtain critical evidence to prosecute perpetrators,” said Charon Asetoyer, Executive Director of the NAWHERC and chair of Amnesty International USA’s Native Advisory Council. “The Tribal Law and Order Act will remedy this, and underscore the importance of the need for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) to collect forensic evidence to testify in a court of law. It is a critical step toward ensuring that Native women’s human rights are recognized.”

      Due to many years of research, documentation, coalition building with Native and non-Native individuals and organizations, informing Tribal leadership, and meetings with I.H.S. representatives, spearheaded by NAWHERC. We are grateful and humbled to see that the Standardized Sexual Assault Policies and Protocols within I.H.S. is an integral piece of this legislation. This act will ultimately result in more prosecutions and convictions of perpetrators, and justice for victims of these violent crimes.

    2. I presently work as a Sexual Assault Advocate @ White Buffalo Calf Woman Society on the Rosebud. Many of our SA calls (within this past year) have been children, some who have been victimized more then once. Our legal/court systems needs to be ENFORCED!! We need people who are in those positions to have the knowledge/skills to know what needs/should be hold accountable/ to prosecute these sick perpetrators. How long will our innocent children’s lives continue to be traumatized??

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