It's not hard to come up with a pretty long list of the ways in which Native Americans have been mistreated and abused by this country's government, but in addition to all of the horrors they've endured throughout history, there's now a very modern problem facing people living on reservations: they experience frighteningly high levels of rape and sexual violence and almost nothing is being done to stop it. It's an upsetting issue that's finally gaining some national attention because it's become the center of one of the debates being had in Congress about the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. To give you an idea of the extent of the problem—and how little we can afford to ignore it—Caroline Antone, a member of the Navajo Nation and an advocate for sexual assault victims, says of her reservation community, "I know only a couple of people who have not been raped. Out of hundreds." Great job, America, as usual.
According to an article in the New York Times, one in three Native American women has been a victim or rape or an attempted rape—a rate which is more than twice the national average. In places like remote villages in Alaska, the rape rate is as much as 12 times the national average. In interviews conducted by the Times, Native American women said, "few, if any, female relatives or close friends have escaped sexual violence." It doesn't get much more awful than that, both for the individual women and in terms of all the damage that violence does to society.
As if the rapes themselves weren't horrid enough, these women are being doubly victimized because their attackers are so rarely found and prosecuted. The whole system that's set up to protect these women is failing them. It begins with the tribal police, who are often so overwhelmed with all kinds of cases that they don't even investigate the rapes that are reported. In fact, some women report that the police actively discourage women from reporting assaults, meaning that the statistics about assault that we have probably don't even capture the true magnitude of this epidemic.
To get an idea of just how bad the follow through on these rape cases is, in the Navajo Nation in the southwest, there were 329 reported cases of rape in 2007 (for a population of 180,000). By 2012, there have been only 17 arrests. Now think about the fact that it's estimated that only 10 percent of assaults on the reservation are reported, and you realize just how many rapists are wandering the streets facing zero consequences for their behavior and free to attack other women whenever they like. When you look at the whole country, the Justice Department says that arrests are made for 35 percent of rapes reported by black women and 32 percent of those reported by white women. The rate for Native American women? Just 13 percent. Wow, that is 100 percent pathetic and absolutely inexcusable.
To give you an idea of how this plays out in women's actual lives, the Times gives the example of a woman in Alaska who was raped, left a voicemail with the tiny tribal police department about it, and never even got a call back. This particular woman still has to see her attacker around her village. She says she knows of five other women who he's also raped, but she's the only one who reported it—and he walks around freely. Take a minute to shake your fists in rage.
Of course, it's not just the police that are the problem. The Indian Health Service hospitals where victims are treated suffer from a chronic lack of rape kits—not to mention contraceptive options and STI testing. Many of them don't even have cameras with which to record the injuries sustained by the victims. Plus, there are usually not enough nurses trained in performing rape exams. You can see why this would be a problem for the victim on the day of her visit, but it also means that generally they can't get the evidence that is usually necessary to secure a rape conviction. So, even if a woman does report her rape and the police devote the resources necessary for finding the perpetrator, there's a good chance he still won't end up in jail. In a truly shocking statistic, 65 percent of the rape cases on Indian reservations in 2011 were not prosecuted by the Justice Department.
In an odd and upsetting twist, some advocates for these women say they've stopped recommending that they even report rapes because it only leads to further suffering. Says Sarah Deer, a professor of law in Minnesota and an expert on violent crime on reservations, "I feel bad saying that. But it compounds the trauma if you are willing to stand up and testify and they can't help you." What a world.
What's particularly scary is that no one really understands why the number of rapes on reservations is so high. It's sometimes explained by citing, "a breakdown in the family structure, a lack of discussion about sexual violence and alcohol abuse." That makes a certain amount of sense, but many of those same problems exist in other communities around the country, and you don't see the same levels of sexual violence there. The Native American women report that rape has been rampant for generations, and obviously tribal officials and government officials have done very little to stop it. It seems fairly obvious that the high rate of assaults is at least partly due to the fact that these guys know they are not likely to face any consequences for their crimes.
The Justice Department says "combating sexual violence" is a priority, and it does seem to be taking some steps to address the problem. They've put more F.B.I. agents and U.S. attorneys on reservations, and they're trying to improve nurse training at the Indian Health Service. But, of course, there's no simple way to fix this kind of problem. Especially since there is now a culture in which women view it as pointless to even go to the authorities after being attacked. Let's hope they're able to make serious inroads, however, since the consequences of all this unchecked violence are bound to reverberate for at least the next few generations.
One group who is absolutely not helping the situation, it may not surprise you to learn, is the Republicans of our wonderful Congress. The Violence Against Women Act that recently came out of the Senate would grant new powers to tribal courts that would allow them to prosecute non-Indians who raped their Indian spouses or partners. That seems like about the bare minimum that could be done in this situation, but it's still a good step. Naturally, House republicans opposed this provision because it was "a dangerous expansion of the tribal courts' authority." Ugh, how positively moving that they care so much about a possible court overreach and not about the actual victims of crimes. The idiots managed to get that part of the legislation axed from the bill that passed the House last week. A compromise bill is now being negotiated by the House and Senate, so now would be as good a time as any to register any slight upset/burning rage you might feel about this with your representatives.
For Native American Women, Scourge of Rape, Rare Justice [New York Times]
Image via Amelia Takacs/Shutterstock.