The current national conversation about sexual assault is incomplete without discussing violence against Native American women. Often in Native communities, a mother will teach her child what to do when she is raped, not if she is raped. This reflects the harsh reality that is affecting Native American women in their fight against sexual assault.
The Policy Insights Brief of the National Congress of American Indians reveals the extraordinarily high rate of victimization of Native women:
American Indians and Alaskan Natives are at least two times more likely compared with all other races to experience rape or sexual assault. Three out of five American Indian and Alaskan Native women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. One in three Native American women have reported being raped in their lifetimes. Native Americans are recognized as American citizens as part of Congress’ 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. But a legal system that is so ineffective at addressing sexual violence that occurs on American Indian reservations expresses something different. Federal law mostly dictates that serious crimes perpetrated by non-Natives on American Indian reservations go to federal court, not the tribal nation’s own court system or a state court. U.S. attorneys get to decide whether to prosecute federal cases. And U.S. attorneys have generally declined to prosecute the large majority of cases involving sexual abuse and related matters.
Recent changes to federal law through amendments to the Violence Against Women Act that expanded tribal court jurisdiction in certain violent crime cases were limited in scope and have not been widely implemented by tribal courts.
Meanwhile, non-Native perpetrators are treating American Indian reservations as hunting grounds. Virtually every Native woman who is a victim of sexual violence has experienced it from a non-Native perpetrator, according to the National Institute of Justice. Unless non-tribal members can be held accountable, the high rates of sexual violence will continue almost unchecked.
Tribes need to have the same power as other U.S. governing bodies to take to trial and prosecute those who commit sexual crimes against their tribal members. Minority populations should not be excluded from the sexual assault conversation since they experience assault at higher rates than white people. To ignore them would only harm the fight to end sexual assault and rape.
Natalia Sells is a student at Fort Lewis College and is the college’s current Miss Hozhoni. Her short film for her Intro to Media Production class, “It’s Just a Costume,” was showcased at last year’s Shorts Fest. It featured interviews with students about the high sexual assault statistics indigenous women face today and the need for action to be taken.