Indian affairs agencies’ harassment problem

Why we’re investigating high rates of discrimination and assault at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

When Sue Parton left her position at the Bureau of Indian Education for a job with the union that represents federal employees in agencies serving Native communities, she was surprised to see how many of them were too intimidated to speak up about a culture of mistreatment. The employees feared retaliation. “That has been in existence for a long time,” Parton, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, told High Country News recently. 

A recent survey of employees at the Department of Interior, which oversees the BIE and Bureau of Indian Affairs, found that sexual harassment at the BIA is a major problem. Anna V. Smith, an assistant editor for High County News, has been studying the data, and her first story on harassment issues within the agency published this week, as part of HCN’s continued coverage of harassment within federal agencies.

Smith reports on a survey that is full of troubling statistics. Three notable points from the survey are worth thinking about together. First, 40 percent of BIA employees reported experiencing some form of harassment within the last year alone. Second, the BIA, which turned 194 this week, is today mostly staffed by Native peoples. And third, most of those within the agency who reported being sexually harassed were young women. Added together, these facts indicate some very specific vulnerabilities for Native women.

Bureau of Indian Affairs employees pose with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs John Tahsuda on #rockyourmocs day.
Bureau of Indian Affairs

I have written these statistics before, but they bear repeating: More than 80 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. More than one in three Native women are raped in their lifetime, more than twice the national average. This is a problem that we can’t continue to ignore, given that the BIA provides services and resources to 1.9 million Native Americans and provides jobs to many. This is an institution Indigenous peoples need to be able to count on and trust.  

Most of those surveyed said they didn’t report their harassment, which isn’t uncommon. This can be especially true in Indian Country, where a history of inaction from authorities contributes to the belief that reporting harassment or assault won’t lead to justice. Some said they didn’t report harassment because they worried about losing their job, unsurprising given unemployment rates among Native communities is almost twice the national average

And when no one seems to be listening, and nothing seems to ever get done when it comes to sexual assault against Native women, it becomes the norm.  

“From working in Indian Country and being a Native individual, we don’t report a lot. There’s a lot that we put up with,” Brandi Liberty, a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, told Smith.  

The only agency within the Interior Department with a higher rate of sexual harassment than the BIA was the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, which had the highest rate of all Interior Department agencies. Meanwhile, a 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office study found the department’s Indian education system was understaffed and without proper accountability, and that many of its schools were so degraded they were a safety hazard for students and staff.

This is troubling, considering the BIA’s painful history of Indian boarding schools. It wasn’t that long ago when children were stripped from their homes, sometimes by armed authorities and sent to schools to have their culture erased.  

And little is being done to solve the bigger issues. When the GAO report was presented to the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy, and Environment last year, lawmakers chose to focus on energy development on tribal lands, rather than the failings of the BIA, Indian Country Today reported.

It’s disheartening to see how the institutions tasked with protecting and building up Native communities have repeatedly failed them and continue to do so.

Still, there are resources available for Native women facing sexual abuse or violence. The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center offers a variety of services. Established last year, StrongHearts is the first domestic abuse hotline to offer assistance tailored to the victim’s individual tribal identity. There is also the National Domestic Violence Hotline. More broadly, the #MeToo phenomenon has changed the national dialogue around violence against women. At High Country News we believe we have a role to play in this dialogue by telling the stories of those who have been victimized or failed by the system. We invite you to add your voice by reporting harassment within Indian affairs agencies to us here

Wado.  

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

High Country News is conducting an ongoing investigation into instances of harassment, discrimination and sexual assault in Indian affairs agencies, and how agency officials handle these complaints. If you are a current or former employee of a federal Indian affairs agency who has experienced harassment, please consider contacting us.

This form is secure, but please consider using a personal email address instead of your government email.

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