Let me set the scene: it was 2005, and I’d been working in the domestic violence field about six months. It was my first real job as an activist, the realization of a hazy, amorphous dream I’d left a Ph.D. program to chase (albeit in a roundabout way). I was in that exciting phase when you first start something new, and everything’s novel and fascinating just for its own sake. I was constantly amazed by what I was learning. I’m telling you this because the key thing to understand about me back then is that I was still capable of being shocked: by rape and domestic violence statistics, by the harrowing personal stories, by the body count. Those days, for better or worse, are behind me; eight years in this job has rendered me pretty much un-shockable. But in ‘05 the magnitude of these problems was still news to me, and every work day ended with me armed with a new fact to depress and/or inspire me, depending on my mood. This was my state of mind when I first encountered the Amnesty International report “Maze of Injustice,” about rape among Native American women.
Here are the facts: Native women are more than two-and-a-half times more likely to experience sexual assault than other groups (the same is true of domestic violence). That means one in three Native women will eventually be raped, which is just so many it strains credibility—at least, I couldn’t believe it when I first saw the stat in the Amnesty report. I remember looking around my office suite and counting the people around me; there were seven of us that day, all women. “Half,” I thought, “that would mean almost half the people here would be raped.” I looked back at my monitor, still glowing with those damning numbers, and thought “No. That can’t be right.” And in a way, it was true; that number isn’t right, because as appallingly high as it is it’s still too low. Rape is one of the most underreported crimes in the country; the Department of Justice estimates that up to 70% of rapes are never reported to law enforcement, and the one-in-three statistic is a DOJ number so . . . you can do the math.
Another thing in the report that shocked me was this little nugget: 75% of the rapes committed against Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men. That’s striking, isn’t it? Especially considering the number of Native women who live on reservations where non-Natives are a minority. Why, then, were so many non-Natives assaulting these women unless there were something that made tribal communities especially attractive to rapists. Tragically, there is. Overlapping state and tribal jurisdictions in Indian territories, where Native authorities can’t prosecute non-Natives and US authorities won’t investigate crimes on tribal lands, have created a situation in which perpetrators can go to reservations specifically to victimize women, knowing there’s little chance they’ll ever be punished for it. This has been going on for decades, and the feds have been sitting and watching this horror show unfold without doing anything to stop it.
Last week I talked about the trouble the Violence Against Women Act has run into because the GOP is making a stink over expanded provisions that protect three at-risk groups: immigrants, LGBT people and Native women. The tribal provisions in VAWA are specifically designed to address the awful miscarriage of justice that lets violent criminals prey on Native women with impunity. The new VAWA guidelines permit tribal authorities to prosecute non-Native perpetrators, following all the rules of due process, because apparently the feds aren’t going to, and continuing to do nothing is morally indefensible. This just can’t be allowed to go on, and the VAWA authors understand that. What is Native sovereignty for, if not to allow them to protect their people and their way of life? And what about the individual sovereignty of Native women, whose dominion over their own bodies is being violated in such a fundamental way?
VAWA passed the Senate this week and is headed for the GOP-controlled House, which refused to even vote on an identical bill last session. They’ve been mum about their plans so far, but we already know that Republicans have the tribal provisions in their sights—they want them gone. Whatever the final VAWA outcome, I want us all to be very clear on one thing: it is a fucking travesty that it’s fallen to sponsors of a victim services bill to try to address a problem that’s the responsibility of the US Department of Justice. We should all be deeply concerned that our government has permitted this terrible violation of Native women’s human rights, and we should all be willing to tell them—congressional Republicans, the DOJ— that enough is enough.