Criminal jurisdiction in Indian country is defined by a central, ironic paradox. Recent federal laws expanding tribal criminal jurisdiction are, in many respects, enormous victories for Indian country, as they acknowledge and reify a more robust notion of tribal sovereignty, one capable of accommodating increased tribal control over safety and security on Indian reservations. At the same time, the laws make clear that sovereignty comes at a price, potentially working to effectuate further assimilation of tribal courts and Indian people. As a result, at the same time that tribal sovereignty gains ground in ways critical to autonomy and self-governance, it is simultaneously threatened by exogenous forces that have the potential to homogenize tribal justice systems legally, politically, and—in particular—culturally.
This Article offers the first comprehensive assessment of the Tribal Law and Order Act and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, respectively, to show how they relate to one another on the ground and the implications for tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Ultimately, based on data compiled for the first time as well as extensive secondary sources, I argue that expanded criminal jurisdiction and punishment authority have, perhaps paradoxically, enhanced the ability of tribes to develop and enforce policies, laws, and procedures that are consistent with tribal custom and tradition. This presents a unique opportunity worthy of further exploration. In other words, rather than sovereignty and assimilation expanding in tension with one another, I find that the application of the laws has been experienced in tribal communities, as least anecdotally and preliminarily, as greatly enhancing—not threatening or destroying—tribal sovereignty and Indian cultural survival.