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Legal Information: Tribal

Abuse in Tribal Communities

Abuse in Tribal Communities

Tribal Protection Orders

Basic information and definitions

Is there a tribal legal definition of domestic violence?

Most tribes/pueblos and Alaskan villages have their own legal definitions of the crime of domestic violence although some tribal communities follow the state law definitions. An increasing number of tribes are also making dating violence a crime. In most criminal cases that take place in tribal courts, tribes are not allowed to charge a non-Indian with crimes.1 In civil matters, such as filing a protection order, most tribes do have the ability to enforce those orders over non-Indians. There are a total of 573 federally-recognized Nations.2 There are also nations that have state recognition.3 Numerous others lack both federal and state recognition. However, these Nations continue to affirm their sovereign status.

Generally, domestic violence is defined as a pattern of power and control within an intimate relationship. Domestic violence can include physical abuse, sexual assault, threats of abuse, psychological abuse, abuse to property, stalking, and other forms of harassment. You can read more about the forms of abuse on our About Abuse page.

You will find a list of many Tribal Codes online at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute’s website or at the National Indian Law Library. In addition, to find out what the legal definition of domestic violence is for your tribe/pueblo or village, you may want to ask the clerk of the court in your community or ask someone at a local domestic violence program. You can also check your tribe’s websites or tribal court websites for information.

To find the contact information for the tribal court in your tribe/pueblo or village, you can look on the Tribal Court Clearinghouse website. However, there may not be a tribal court in every tribe/pueblo or village. To find state courts, you can go to our Courthouse Locations page.​

1United States v. Oliphant, 435 U.S. 191, 98 S. Ct. 1011, 55 L. Ed. 2d 209, 1978
2Bureau of Indian Affairs
3 National Congress of American Indians

What protections can I get in a tribal protection order?

Protection orders cannot guarantee your safety, but they can protect you in several different ways. Although the exact protections will vary from one tribal court to another, a tribal protection order may include terms that:

  • prohibit the respondent (abuser) from having any contact or communication, direct or indirect, including by phone, mail, email, text message, or through third parties with you, your children, or your current intimate partner;
  • order the respondent to stay a certain amount of feet away from you, your home, your school, your business, your workplace, your children, your children’s school or daycare, or your current intimate partner;
  • force the respondent to leave the home that you both share and to stay away from it, regardless of whose name is on the lease, mortgage, or other real estate agreement;
  • grant you custody of, or visitation with, your children;
  • order the respondent to pay you child support;
  • order any additional terms are that are necessary to ensure your safety or the safety of your children; and
  • kick the respondent off the reservation if it’s necessary to prevent future acts of domestic abuse.1

1 See, for example, “Domestic Abuse Order After Hearing” form from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Tribal Court, available on the Tribal Protection Order Resources website

How long is a protection order in effect?

Protection orders can last for different periods of time depending on the laws of the specific Native American tribe/pueblo or Alaskan village. For example, on Navajo lands, a protection order can last for up to five years,1 while a protection order only lasts for one year on Cherokee lands.2

1 Navajo Nation Code Title 9 § 1662(C)
2 See Cherokee Family Violence Center

Getting a tribal protection order

Am I eligible to get a protection order?

Each Native American tribe/pueblo and Alaskan village has different laws that describe who is eligible to file for a protection order and who is not. Generally, if you have been the victim of domestic violence by a family or household member (as defined by your tribal laws) or you have a fear of serious injury or harm by a family or household member, then you may be eligible to file for a protection order. Most tribes/pueblos or Alaskan village require you to be “an Indian” in order for you to file in tribal court for a protection order. You normally don’t have to be enrolled if you live within the tribal territory, but the violence or threat of violence has to take place within that tribal territory.

In order to find out what the laws in your area are, you may want to go to your tribal courthouse and ask the court clerk what the eligibility requirements are for filing for a tribal protection order. To find the contact information for the tribal court in your tribe/pueblo or village, you can look on the Tribal Court Clearinghouse website

How much does it cost to get a tribal protection order?

The federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) prohibits states, tribal nations, and territories that receive certain federal funding from charging fees for protection orders that deal with domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault.1 Most of the tribal nations receive this funding and so, therefore, you should not be charged a fee to file or serve the order.

1 34 U.S.C. §§ 10450(a); 10461(c)(1)

Do I need a lawyer?

You can represent yourself throughout the process of seeking a tribal protection order, which is called being pro se. Many people are successful in getting protection orders on their own. However, in many situations, it would be to your advantage to have an attorney to help you through this process. This is especially true if the abuser has an attorney or child custody issues are involved.

You can go to our Finding a Lawyer page for legal referrals in your state. If you do not want an attorney or cannot find an attorney, there may be another option. Some tribal courts allow non-attorneys who have gone through special training, often called lay advocates, to practice in tribal court. Your local domestic violence program may have lay advocates or even legal advocates who can help you to file for a protection order and prepare for the hearing. You may be able to connect with someone who can help and who knows the system by contacting one of the tribal coalitions listed on the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center website.

If you want to research tribal codes and constitutions, you can go to the Native American Rights Fund’s National Indian Law Library website.

After the order is issued

What should I do when I leave the courthouse?

These are some things you may want to consider after you have been granted a tribal order of protection. Depending on what you think is safest in your situation, you may do any or all of the following:

  • Review the order before you leave the courthouse. If something is wrong or missing, ask the clerk how to correct the order before you leave.
  • Make several copies of the tribal order of protection as soon as possible.
  • Keep a copy of the order with you at all times.
  • Leave copies of the order at your workplace, at your home, at the children’s school or daycare, in your car, with a sympathetic neighbor, and so on.
  • Give a copy to the security guard or person at the front desk where you live and/or work along with a photo of the abuser.
  • Give a copy of the order to anyone who is named in and protected by the order.
  • You may wish to consider changing your locks (if permitted by law) and your phone number.

You may also wish to make a safety plan. People can do a number of things to increase their safety during violent incidents, when preparing to leave an abusive relationship, and when they are at home, work, and school. Many batterers obey orders of protection, but some do not and it is important to build on the things you have already been doing to keep yourself safe. Click on the following link for suggestions on Safety Tips.

Is my tribal protection order valid outside of the reservation? And if I have a protection order by the state court, is it valid on the reservation?

Under most circumstances, tribal protection orders (and orders issued by state courts) are valid in all 50 states, Washington D.C., in all U.S. territories, and on all tribal lands.1 Tribal protection orders may be enforceable in any state or territory including on other tribal lands. If you move out of the area where your protection order was granted, you may want to contact the clerk of courts in your area or talk to a lawyer for information about how an order that was issued by a tribe/pueblo or Alaskan village can be enforced.

118 U.S.C. §2265(a)

What happens if the abuser violates the tribal protection order?

If the abuser violates your tribal protection order anywhere, even outside of the Indian territory, you can report it to the police.1 A tribal court or a state court has the power to punish or prosecute the abuser. Depending upon the law where the violation took place, some police departments may immediately arrest the abuser for the violation of the protection order.

125 U.S.C.A. § 1304(b)(2)(A)

If the abuser is a non-Indian, can a tribal court enforce a protection order?

Tribes have the ability to enforce a protection order. In addition, tribes can investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence non-Indians who commit domestic violence against Indian spouses or dating partners or violate a protection order in Indian country under VAWA’s special domestic violence jurisdiction. The law requires that the non-Indian have the following connections with the Indian victim and Indian community:

  • s/he lives in the Indian country of the participating tribe;
  • s/he is employed in the Indian country of the participating tribe; or
  • s/he is the spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner of:
    • a member of the participating tribe; or
    • an Indian who resides in the Indian country of the participating tribe.1

You can find more information about VAWA’s special domestic violence jurisdiction on the National Congress of American Indians website.

1 25 U.S.C.A. § 1304(b)(4)(B), (c)

Is there anything I can do to protect myself if I am not eligible for a tribal protection order?

If you are not eligible for a tribal protection order, you may still be eligible for a restraining order from a state court. You can read more about restraining orders in your state in our Domestic Violence Restraining Orders section.

Whether or not you are eligible for a tribal protection order or a state-court order, you should consider making a safety plan to help keep you and your family safe. Please see our Safety Tips page for ideas. If you are not safe at home, you might try staying with a friend, family member, or at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. You can connect with an advocate at a local domestic violence program for additional help, whether it’s to make a safety plan or to get support and counseling.