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Violence Against Women Act Could Improve Prosecution Rates On Wind River Reservation

The Eastern Shoshone tribe is moving to adopt the Violence Against Women Act in an effort to better prosecute sexual assaults of Native women from the Wind River Reservation. The hope is that the law will help overcome a jurisdiction gap between tribal and federal justice systems.

Sydney Moller is the director of the Fremont County Alliance Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, an organization that serves a high percentage of Native American victims. She said adopting the act will allow the tribe to provide a specially trained nurse to handle rape exams on the reservation. Right now, they don’t have one.

“And guess what, it won’t matter if their perpetrator is Caucasian or not,” she said. “It will not matter if their assault occurred anywhere in this county. It will not matter.”

In a previous story aired on Wyoming Public Radio, retired federal officials thought they were portrayed as not doing all they could when dealing with sexual assault allegations on the reservation.  Moller said the feds do what they can.

“They’re busy. They’ve got a lot of big cases, you know. Lots of big cases.” But, she said, “Our county has a lot of cases too. But they also have a lot more human bodies in the county to investigate those cases. They’ve just got the staff here that the federal government doesn’t have.”

Moller said that’s one reason why non-Native victims in Fremont County are more likely to see their cases move forward than Native victims. 

Moller also said more sexual assault cases would see their day in court if prosecutors used a more evidence-based approach, which would treat such assaults like any other crime and not just a “he-said, she-said.” This could work especially well, Moller said, to prosecute sexual assault cases around the Wind River Reservation.

“We see it time and time again where the burden of prosecuting a case that splits jurisdictional lines like this is too much for the federal government to really want to get involved in, or they just don’t feel like there’s enough of a case there. That’s what we hear a lot. ‘We just don’t have a case. We just don’t have a case.’ Well, guess what? Figure out a process for an investigation so you have the information you need for this case,” said Moller.

Right now, only 37 percent of Native American sexual assaults that are reported to police are prosecuted in the U.S. Moller said part of the problem is that usually only the victim’s testimony is used in deciding to prosecute, but she’d like to see investigations that include other witnesses and evidence. 

Moller added that she’d also like both tribes to adopt the Violence Against Women Act, which would allow more cases to be handled locally by the tribes, instead of turning them over to the federal courts. 

Moller said the Eastern Shoshone Tribe hopes to adopt the Act sometime in 2018.


Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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