Native American women still have the highest rates of rape and assault

A flawed tribal court structure, little local law enforcement and a lack of funding fail to protect women from violence.

 

One night several years ago, a man on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana held his partner against her will, beat her, and then choked her until she passed out. After she came to, she escaped and informed law enforcement about what happened. This incident wasn’t the first; the man had a history of domestic violence and abuse. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

The woman found help at the Blackfeet Domestic Violence Program and tried to move on with her life. But this year, her ex was released from prison and returned to his home on the reservation. He was told to stay away from her, says the program’s lead advocate Marilyn Gobert, but the woman still fears for her life. This case is not unique – it’s one of hundreds Gobert sees a year, a small glimpse into the sexual violence epidemic that has plagued tribal communities for as long as she can remember. 

A new Department of Justice study shows that of over 2,000 women surveyed, 84 percent of Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, 56 percent have experienced sexual violence, and, of that second group, over 90 percent have experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member. Most women reported they were concerned for their safety, and around half said they had experienced physical violence like pushing, shoving, or being beaten. Over 60 percent had experienced psychological aggression or coercive control. Experts say these record numbers still underestimate the number of women affected by violence, and the infrastructure for women to report and handle incidents is underfunded.

“It’s the norm here,” Gobert says of the Blackfeet Reservation in particular. “People don’t want to address it, or face it, even though almost every family on the reservation is affected by it.”

The study uses data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey and examines violence in its many forms: domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, stalking, psychological aggression and physical assault for both women and men. Over half of participants identified with tribal nations in the West, though the report is meant to spur policy change at the national level.

Currently, tribal courts do not have the jurisdiction to prosecute non-tribal members for many crimes like sexual assault and rape, even if they occur on tribal land. This is a huge issue, because non-Native American men commit the majority of assaults against Native American women. There are also few resources for tribal criminal justice systems, little backup from local law enforcement, and hardly any funding from the federal government to improve these systems. And all of this contributes to the exceptionally high rates of sexual and domestic violence. 

A group of Alaskan Native children protest violence.

The high levels of violence were first highlighted in 1999, when the Department of Justice released its initial report. Since then, multiple studies on the topic have confirmed the crisis: Native Americans are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault and rape than any other ethnic group in the United States. The Violence Against Women Act (first enacted in 1994) was reauthorized in 2013, with amendments to add protections for Native American women. It gave tribal nations the power to prosecute non-tribal members for domestic violence, but not other crimes like sexual assault, child abuse or rape. The law went into effect in 2015 and was implemented for a handful of tribes, but most are still trying to find the resources to build out more criminal justice infrastructure like courts, jails, law enforcement, and judges, and fund anti-violence programs.  

The new report reveals the highest rates on record of violence against tribal women and men. It is also one of the first national reports to include significant research on the race of perpetrators, and showed that most were white. Andre Rosay, director of the Justice Center for the University of Alaska, who authored the study, said that by far the most glaring result was that almost every single victim experienced some sort of interracial violence. That provides plenty of evidence for tribes’ right to prosecute offenders who are not tribal members, he added. In addition to allowing tribes to prosecute for sexual assault, changing this law could also allow them to charge non-tribal members with human trafficking, child abuse, and other egregious crimes that fall through the cracks because of this legal loophole. 

Even when offenders are prosecuted on tribal land, tribal law may not protect survivors outside of the reservation. Take stalking, for example. About half of women who responded said they had been stalked at some point. But according to several advocates, if a restraining order is mandated by tribal government, it is not always enforced or even honored off the reservation by local law enforcement, or vice versa. “They’re not helpful,” Gobert says of Glacier County law enforcement. “They don’t have the willingness to work with us.”

Despite the troubling statistics, there is progress being made: Local violence programs offer services for women on reservations across the country and a new domestic violence hotline instated with the help of the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center will allow those who identify as Native American or Alaskan Native to report incidents more directly. But systemic change will requiring providing tribes with more resources like long-term funding to pay for courts, jails, law enforcement, and other criminal justice infrastructure.

It will also take overcoming cultural and socioeconomic barriers. High rates of unemployment and substance abuse contribute to the problem, and many people can’t afford to live on their own or don’t want to risk losing their children, so they stay in abusive relationships. Gobert says many Native Americans find it hard to fight the cultural stigma of reporting rape, and leaving the reservation is out of the question for many women.

Later this month, the Department of Justice study will be the subject of a congressional briefing about the need for more protections for Native American women under the Violence Against Women Act, when local advocates and officials from the Office on Violence Against Women meet to discuss the findings. Advocates say small steps are being made, but they know sweeping improvements to the justice system or cultural shifts aren’t in the immediate future. “When they make these laws, they don’t think of what’s happening (on reservations),” Gobert says. “But I always hope there will be change.”

Note: This article has been updated to clarify the findings from the Department of Justice Survey; 56 percent of 2,000 women surveyed surveyed have experienced sexual violence, over 90 percent of that group has experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member.

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets

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