Native American victims of violence

Amnesty International: Women on reservations have huge levels of assault, little access to recourse.

Published April 25, 2007 5:30PM (EDT)

Amnesty International Tuesday released a report that documents, exhaustively and chillingly, the level of violence committed against Native American and indigenous Alaskan women -- and the lack of support for victims that serves to help perpetuate the ugly cycle.

According to the report, titled "Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women From Sexual Violence in the USA," Department of Justice figures indicate that the rates of rape and sexual violence among these groups are nearly three times higher than the U.S. national average. More than one in three Native women -- vs. less than one in five nationwide -- will be raped in her lifetime. And that's presuming underreporting.

"Overall, Amnesty International's findings indicate that many American Indian and Alaska Native victims of sexual violence find access to legal redress, adequate medical attention and reparations difficult, if not impossible. Impunity for perpetrators and indifference towards survivors contribute to a climate where sexual violence is seen as normal and inescapable rather than criminal, and where women do not seek justice because they know they will be met with inaction," says the study.

Why the "inaction"? See "maze," above. The expanded version of the 2005 Violence Against Women Act contains special provisions for tracking and responding to violence on tribal land. In practice, however, those provisions haven't been enough -- especially in light of ongoing, perhaps even willful, confusion over jurisdiction. "Sometimes the confusion and the length of time it takes to decide whether tribal, state or federal authorities have jurisdiction over a particular crime result in inadequate investigations or in a failure to respond at all," says the report. Or, as one Oklahoma support worker told Amnesty researchers: "When an emergency call comes in, the sheriff will say 'but this is Indian land.' Tribal police will show up and say the reverse. Then, they just bicker and don't do the job. Many times, this is what occurs. And it doesn't always get resolved, which means no rape [sexual assault evidence] kit, etc."

Renee Brewer, a child welfare and family violence counselor for the Potawatomi Nation and a member of the Creek Muskogee tribe, "said she recently had four agencies arguing over jurisdiction after a woman from the Absentee Shawnee Nation called 911 to say she had been raped," according to coverage of the report in Wednesday's New York Times.

Just as jurisdiction gets hazy, so too does the definition of domestic violence. "I can't get a U.S. attorney to take a domestic violence case unless there's severe physical harm or use of a deadly weapon," Kelly Stoner, director of the Native American Legal Resource Center at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, told the Times. "If you just knock a tooth out it's not enough."

To some degree, the level of violence is linked to other social problems on tribal land, such as drug addiction. But the report also discusses the incidence of attacks on Native women by non-Native men (representing 86 percent of reported attacks). Andrea Smith, professor of Native studies at the University of Michigan, told Amnesty: "Non-Native perpetrators often seek out a reservation place because they know they can inflict violence without much happening to them."

The report also places the violence in a rather nasty cultural and historical context. "A video game called 'Custer's Revenge' was marketed ... in 1989 in which the objective was for players to manipulate the character of General Custer to have sex with a Native American woman who was bound to a post. The University of North Dakota has refused to change its mascot from 'the fighting Sioux' despite strong opposition by Sioux Tribes and despite the fact that it has generated racialized and sexualized discourse. For example, students at the University wore T-shirts depicting a caricature of a Sioux Indian having sexual intercourse with a bison," says the report. "The fact that Native American and Alaska Native women have been dehumanized throughout U.S. history informs present-day attitudes. It helps fuel the high rates of sexual violence perpetrated against them and the high levels of impunity enjoyed by their attackers."

Amnesty calls for Congress to apply tribal authority to Native American land, not just people, and to increase federal spending on Native American law enforcement and health clinics. More information and resources are at Amnesty International.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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