Fighting Back Against Sexual Violence on Indian Reservations

Apr 6, 2012Katherine ReillyMarielle DeJong

money-justice-scalesAs part of the 10 Ideas: Social Innovation to End Discrimination series, recognizing that we can't take an out of sight, out of mind approach to the rights and safety of Native American women.

Since its colonial beginnings, the United States has been an active participant in a long history of injustice against Native Americans. Such incidents are often considered to be in the past -- issues of colonial conflict and displacement that no longer exist. Today, Native American rights have fallen off the government's radar and have become less of a concern among policymakers. Americans have limited knowledge of the cultural traditions, governmental policies, and law enforcement guidelines that exist on tribal reservations. Such ignorance not only ignores but perpetuates the continued examples of injustice that are very much present today.

Statistics offer proof of the exceptionally high rates of violent crime on many Native American reservations and that women in particular are frequent victims of such crime. Native American women suffer 2.5 times more violent crime than the national average. One in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. Four out of five of the perpetrators are non-Native.

These numbers show a disturbing trend that reveals a clear problem in safety and law enforcement on tribal lands. Criminal investigation and prosecution on tribal lands are lacking, a problem that can be attributed in part to cultural and structural barriers that prevent effective communication between tribal, state, and federal government. Because of limitations on investigation and sentence length, tribes often depend on federal authorities, causing gaps in jurisdiction and miscommunication because both governments represent constituencies with different interests and values. Complicated jurisdiction, institutional problems, and limited resources all contribute to an inefficient law enforcement system, which perpetuates the prevalence of sexual violence on Indian reservations. Alcoholism and poverty only exacerbate these problems, which can no longer be ignored. It is of utmost importance that the criminal justice system be improved to more effectively deter and prosecute perpetrators. It is equally important that preventative policies be adopted to reduce the amount of sexual violence.

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The Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) mandates the coordination of Indian Health Services, the Department of Justice, tribal organizations, and Urban Indian Organizations to set a standard protocol for dealing with sexual assault. It standardizes the treatment of rape and assault victims and the training of tribal police in effective questioning of victims and collection of evidence. The Stand Against Violence and Empower Native Women Act (SAVE Native Women Act) was introduced to Congress on October 31, 2011 and is now cosponsored by 14 U.S. senators. The act aims to further decrease violent crimes against Native American women by strengthening the authority of tribes to hold perpetrators responsible. Currently, tribes do not have jurisdiction if the crime involves a non-Native perpetrator or victim or if the crime does not occur in Indian country. The act is currently being reviewed by the United States Committee on Indian Affairs. Both of these acts are crucial to improving conditions on reservations.

Congress should enact the SAVE Native Women Act, and the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) should advocate for the reallocation of funds toward programs that prevent and address violent crimes against Native American women. Additionally, officers should be educated in Native American history and culture by law enforcement experts, Native American historians, and community leaders.

The current Basic Police Officer Training Program at the Indian Police Academy is a course designed for U.S. BIA and tribal law enforcement officers. While the training includes Indian country law and "BIA specialized training," the trainees are not specifically taught about Native American cultural traditions or history. A law enforcement training program that encourages both efficient communication and cultural understanding will lead to a justice system that more effectively investigates crimes and prosecutes criminals.

Native American women especially will benefit from a policy that brings justice to those oppressed by race and gender. Additionally, both federal and tribal law enforcement agencies have a stake in the outcome, as it would affect their training procedures and lead to more collaborative communication. Legislators involved in state commissions on Indian affairs or in the Congressional Native American Caucus would likely be supportive of this proposal. This is also an issue of human rights, which impacts all Americans.

Native American people are an integral part of the American population. As such, the United States has a responsibility to protect the livelihood of American Indians while still respecting their independence and self-determination. The United States must adopt and implement policies that facilitate the creation and continuation of safe environments for Native American Women. Not doing so would jeopardize the American ideal of security and equality for all. The Tribal Law and Order Act and the SAVE Native Women Act are both steps in the right direction. State, tribal, and federal governments should all take steps to ensure that Native Women are protected under the law and should work to both reduce and prevent sexual violence on reservations. Finally, the American public should continue to be aware and educated about the lifeways of the people around them. During a time when women's health issues are being constantly debated by presidential candidates, Americans must be aware of the criminal injustices and health dangers that threaten Native American women every day.

Marielle DeJong is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying American Indian studies. Katherine Reilly is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying journalism and political science. Both are members of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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