Domestic Abusers Have Gone Unpunished in Indian Country — Until Now

There was nothing Michael Valenzuela could do about it. Nobody could, really. The victim was a tribal member living on the reservation and dating a non-Native man with an abusive streak as deep as it was vicious.

Back in the 1990s Valenzuela was a rookie cop on the Pascua Yaqui reservation, just outside Tucson, Arizona; today he serves as the tribe’s chief of police. With short curly hair and a soft, even voice, Valenzuela prefers talking about some of his personal interests — Wakavaki (a traditional Pascua Yaqui soup) or Star Wars (his office is filled with memorabilia) — than about violence on the reservation. However, his first domestic violence case has stuck with him to this day.

In the 1990s, the law was working against him: The victim was a Pascua Yaqui tribal member; the abuser, a non-Native man. The crime occurred within Pascua Yaqui territory — a small reservation covering three and a half square miles with nearly 5,000 residents living in modest homes set against the tan-and-khaki-color palette of the Sonoran desert. Non-Native-on-Native abuse meant that if anyone was going to punish the offender it would be federal authorities, not Pascua Yaqui.

“I would arrest him and we knew right away to contact the US attorney’s office,” Valenzuela told VICE News. “Most of the time they would just decline the case right then and there.”

That meant Valenzuela would put the guy in the back of his cruiser, drive him off the reservation, and let him go in the parking lot of a convenience store.

“We felt like we were letting her down because what do we do? Drive him further? He’d just walk longer and he’d still get here, or he’d get a ride,” said Valenzuela. “The only protection we [wanted] was incarceration for repeat offenders, and it wasn’t available to us.”

In many cases, it still isn’t.

Read more here.

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tristan ahtone

Tristan Ahtone is an award winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona and raised across the United States, he was educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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