Hidden epidemic: Why one group of Americans is raped without justice
By— September 5, 2012
Something is very wrong here. My peers feel it, I feel it, and it’s not going away. Those of us in the Native American community know we are being targeted—and as I read about sexualized violence against civilians in war zones, I can’t help but draw parallels to the brutality against Native women.
Violence against us is at astronomical levels; it is a plague. This is not hyperbole and this not a distortion of numbers. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs described the plight of Native American women as a human rights crisis. Amnesty International called it an epidemic. Amnesty reports that our women are 2.5 times more likely to be stalked than any other population; the murder rate with respect to Native women is 10 times the national average. Most disconcerting is that Native women report that the perpetrators of more than 85 percent of sexualized assaults against them are non-Native men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In fact, rape and abuse in our community have always stemmed from outsiders. It is well documented through oral traditions, stories, and cultural beliefs that prior to the European invasion, sexualized and domestic violence was not accepted and virtually did not exist in indigenous society. In “Decolonizing Rape Law: A Native Feminist Synthesis of Safety and Sovereignty,” Native scholar and activist Sarah Deer states that rape was once “extremely rare in tribal communities. Arguably, the imposition of colonial systems of power and control has resulted in Native women being the most victimized group of people in the United States.”
Scholar Lisa Poupart at the University of Wisconsin notes that the “traditional spiritual world views that organized daily tribal life prohibited harm by individuals against other beings. To harm another being was akin to committing the same violation against the spirit world.” Through the process of colonization, women were subjugated to a type of pain they had never previously known. That pain has reverberated through generations and has carried over to present day.
But why has it persisted? Largely, because of the structure of federal, state, and tribal law. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruling of Oliphant vs. Squamish Indian Tribe established that tribes have no authority to prosecute non-Native people. Congress has limited the power of tribal courts by extending state and federal jurisdiction over Native lands. In November of 2011, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act included new provisions that would have finally allowed tribal courts to prosecute non-Native people. The Senate approved the re-authorization but the House decided to write their own bill that excluded these provisions.
In an April statement that demotes Natives below the rank of “regular” citizens, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson from Texas said: “One of the problematic provisions of the committee bill would give tribal courts authority to arrest, try and imprison any American. This provision is probably unconstitutional; it is certainly impractical.” To me, that is, at best, a misleading statement and at worst, blatantly discriminatory. The majority of gender violence is being inflicted by non-Native men—and the U.S. government has set up a system that prevents Native people from protecting ourselves. (The senator's office did not respond to phone calls for comment by the time this story was published.)
These laws are bad enough for women who are attacked. But on a larger level, they also perpetuate the notion that it is perfectly acceptable to sexually violate Native Americans. “There is a general understanding that Native women are valued less by society,” said Britta Guerrero, executive director of the Native American Health Center in Sacramento, California. “Sexual assault has become acceptable. We’ve become apathetic to the problem.”
Apathy, however, is absurd in light of what’s going on. Jessica Danforth, North American co-chair for the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, put it bluntly: “Seven-hundred missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada is equivalent to 18,000 white women.” In other words, for a population that has already been decimated, the numbers are staggering. “This is not happening at random or [by] accident," Danforth added.
As I read evidence from WMC’s Women Under Siege of the gender-based violence in conflicts around the world, I know our conflict isn’t by accident, either. I know that justice is being systematically denied to a specific population of people, solely based on ethnicity and geographic location. And it is being denied in a uniquely unjust fashion. The U.N. has found that in “no other jurisdiction within the United States does a government lack the legal authority to prosecute violent criminal offenders under its laws.” First we’re targeted by non-Native men, then we’re robbed of our right to prosecute them.
As an activist working toward community-based solutions to this crisis, I know that the tribal police forces lack resources, that they have not been trained to deal with high volumes of sexualized violence. I know the Supreme Court’s ruling has silenced the tribal courts.
And as a woman in the Native community, I also know the certainty with which my friends and family members will be sexually assaulted. The question is not if they will be attacked, but when.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The fifth paragraph has been corrected to reflect that the House did not vote down the Senate version of the reauthorization of VAWA; it chose instead to write its own version of the act.