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Date published: 1/17/2013
ACOMA PUEBLO, N.M.--In a desperate attempt to make it to the front door, Robin Sanchez crawled across the living room floor. Her ex-husband, fresh out of jail and intoxicated, used a wooden slat from one of the kitchen chairs to beat her.
She recalls how she was about to open the door when a loud crack resonated across her head. Blood gushed down her face as she heard her 3-year-old daughter cry: "Daddy, don't be mean to Mommy."
That September night in 2011 ended outside their home on the Acoma reservation in western New Mexico with tribal police officers, guns drawn, ordering Kirby Sanchez to release the mother of his child from a chokehold.
Scenes like this are far too common in Indian Country, where violent crime rates on some reservations are 20 times the national average. Women are especially vulnerable; federal statistics show that nearly half of all American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced physical violence, sexual assault or stalking by an intimate partner and 1 in 3 will be raped in her lifetime.
That's why hope was high in 2010 when President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, an overhaul intended to give tribal leaders more authority to combat crime on their reservations.
Among other things, the law expanded the sentencing authority of tribal courts, allowed for the appointment of special U.S. attorneys to prosecute violent crimes on reservation land and revamped training for reservation police officers.
Two and a half years later, implementation of the law remains a mixed bag on reservations nationwide.
From New Mexico to Mississippi, law officers, prosecutors, health care workers and victim advocates have been trying to chip away at the problem, but former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who was the chief sponsor of the legislation, admits change is slow.
"It can be life or death for people," Dorgan said.
Many of the 566 federally recognized tribes have blamed a lack of funding for not moving ahead more quickly. While the federal government is providing some money for new programs, tribes are responsible for funding other elements of the law.
In other cases, tribal governments are still deliberating exactly how to institute the new measures, which require rewriting tribal constitutions or criminal codes.