The Bureau of Indian Affairs Has a Serious Harassment Problem

Illustration for article titled The Bureau of Indian Affairs Has a Serious Harassment Problem
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A disheartening report from High Country News shows that the widespread harassment running rampant through the Department of the Interior is especially bad at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


Surveys conducted across the various agencies within the Department of the Interior show that while harassment is an issue for many of the agencies within, the Bureau of Indian Affairs—which is staffed primarily by Native Americans—experiences harassment on a much larger scale. According to a survey of BIA employees, over 40 percent reported being sexually or racially harassed in the past year; most of those surveyed did not report their harassment, which means that this number is a small sliver of the experiences that employees of this agency have faced.

From HCN:

As is often the case in federal agencies, the majority of victims of sexual harassment and assault were young women. The survey also shows tensions between non-Natives and Native Americans. Twenty percent of employees, mostly white or Hispanic, felt they had been racially harassed in the last 12 months. The only agency with higher racial harassment was the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, which also had the highest sexual harassment of all Interior Department agencies.

BIA offices are mostly isolated, leaving employees vulnerable. Most of the harassers in the reported cases were older males, and many of the respondents said that they were discouraged from reporting their harassment and if they did so, they faced retaliation from their colleagues and their harassers.

Harassment in the Native and Indigenous community is a particularly pervasive problem that, in this new era, still isn’t getting the light it deserves. A 2016 report from the Department of Justice showed that 56 percent of the Native women surveyed have been the victims of sexual violence. From HCN:

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.

In a 2017 op-ed for the Washington Post, Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, highlighted the importance of including Native women in the conversation surrounding harassment and abuse—especially when it seems that the movement is pushing the stories of the marginalized to the wayside. “According to the Department of Justice, American Indians are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Indian women reports having been raped in her lifetime,” she wrote. “Yet they are never named in the national conversation about sexual violence.”

Lucy Simpson, member of the Navajo Nation and the executive director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center told that harassment of Native women is part of the legacy of this country’s ugly history.“The mentality of ownership over Native women’s bodies does not occur only from 9-5,” she said. “It is a dynamic that has grown in mainstream society since colonization. We see it almost every day with the sexualization of Native women in media.”


The key to fixing the issue, said Simpson, is to address it from within.

“Tribal courts tend to have a better understanding of what an indigenous victim of sexual harassment (and other forms of violence) is experiencing as an indigenous person,” she told Indianz, “given the fact that for many of us, our Native identify is at the core of our life experiences.”

Senior Writer, Jezebel



I can only speak to my experience working almost exclusively in Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) departments. The BIE is under the BIA, of course. One dynamic that the report from High Country News does not explicitly state is that in many cases, the administrators are non-Indigenous, with the rank and file being Indigenous. This is important because otherwise, it’s very easy to get the impression that this is lateral oppression at play. In my experience, it’s much more likely to be a non-Indigenous department head who is harassing the Indigenous people he or she supervises.

For me, another reason why I put up with harassment for about two years is that I was working in my own community, and I never wanted to leave it. I love my people and my land so much that I took years of harassment before I finally had enough. I went to work for a different tribe and I cried on the morning of my first commute there, feeling like I had abandoned everything that I stand for. All the years I spent in college and grad school were singularly focused on coming back home to serve my people. Leaving my tribe, I mean even right now, I’m crying because I had to leave it. Even though my years working and teaching there were filled with a lot of humiliation and mean-spirited comments from my department head.

I had to leave my tribe, because I had a non-Indigenous supervisor who on the one hand, took all the Catholics in the office to get their ashes on Ash Wednesday in a tribal car during work hours and also denied me cultural leave for ceremony. But she wouldn’t just deny my cultural leave- she would approve it, which meant I would do all the preparation, then revoke my leave the day before a pilgrimage or ceremony. Preparation ranges from mundane things like arranging caravans to pick up elders to spiritual things like fasting, or preparing for months to have goods for a giveaway. So I wish the article had made it more clear that the dynamic is often a non-Indigenous supervisor pretty much hazing their Indigenous employees. I’m about three years removed from working in a toxic, racist environment, and I still have nightmares that I still work for her, and I literally shiver when I hear her name.