Standing Rock is one of four reservations in the United States awarded grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice to hire a special federal prosecutor for cases involving violence against women, which government authorities say has reached epidemic proportions in Indian country.
William Zuger, the reservation's chief judge for the last six years, called it a creative move while Congress is stalled on the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. One part of the law would allow tribes to pursue misdemeanor domestic and dating violence cases and conceivably stop the abuse before it escalates.
"It's a rather innovative way to get around the jurisdictional gaps," Zuger said. "Frankly, it's quite remarkable."
The contract, approved last week by the Standing Rock tribal council, gives the tribe $450,000 over three years for salary, travel, training and expenses. Other grants went to Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, Fort Belknap Tribe in Montana, and Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska.
Charles Murphy, Standing Rock tribal chairman, did not respond to The Associated Press' repeated requests for an interview. The reservation stretches from southern North Dakota to central South Dakota.
Zuger said the success of the pilot program will be measured by the impact it has on the recurrence of domestic violence. He cited figures by the National Network to End Domestic Violence that show a 63 percent reduction in domestic violence on reservations between 1994 — when VAWA was passed — and 2000.
"The fact is, aggressive prosecution has been demonstrated to be highly effective," the judge said.
The act is up for renewal this year but has stalled as the U.S. Senate and House argue over whether the bill should spell out protections for immigrants, Native Americans and gays.
Justice Department figures show that an American Indian woman born in the United States has a 1-in-3 chance of being sexually assaulted in her lifetime, compared with 1-in-5 for the country as a whole. Women on some reservations are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average, according to a federal study of death certificates.
Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney from North Dakota, called the grant a landmark agreement that shows the relationship between the tribe and federal prosecutors from two states. The new assistant U.S. attorney will be able to pursue domestic violence cases in both federal and tribal courts.
"This is a place where these dollars will be put to good use because Standing Rock has worked hard to strengthen its tribal court system over the years," Purdon said.
Standing Rock's court system is considered better than most tribal operations, partly because the tribe provides public defenders and defendants do not have to prove they are too poor to afford one. That legal representation allows Zuger to hand out maximum sentences of three years, compared to one year on most reservations.
"I have no problem putting people away, but it's got to be done fairly," Zuger said. "They have the right to be properly defended, because they're going to jail."
A recent ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allows federal prosecutors to use domestic violence convictions in tribal court to charge someone as a habitual domestic offender. Kerby St. John, a Standing Rock council member, was convicted under that statute last month.
"Our approach to addressing domestic violence in tribal communities is firm and uncompromising," said Brendan Johnson, U.S. attorney for South Dakota. "We will use every tool at our disposal to stop it."