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National NOW Times >> Spring 2011  >> Article

Native American Women and Violence

Native American women experience the highest rate of violence of any group in the United States. A report released by the Department of Justice, American Indians and Crime, found that Native American women suffer violent crime at a rate three and a half times greater than the national average. National researchers estimate that this number is actually much higher than has been captured by statistics; according to the Department of Justice over 70% of sexual assaults are never reported.

As women of color, Native Americans experience not only sexual violence, but also institutionalized racism. Alex Wilson, a researcher for the Native American group Indigenous Perspectives, found a high level of tension between law enforcement and Native American women, who report numerous encounters where the police treated the women as if they were not telling the truth.

"In a reservation community,” Wilson said, "911 would dispatch police to a scene of domestic violence, but police would call the victim by cell phone and decide himself when or if he should go to the victim’s home. Often the women would wait for an hour and other times the abuser would answer when the police called, and would say everything was fine, and there was no need for them to come. Native women . . . who called police for help were often re-victimized by the police."

Native American women also stand a high risk of losing their children in instances of physical and sexual abuse. The women often will stay with abusive husbands in order to keep their children. In one case, a woman was beaten by her husband so badly that he broke bones and she was forced to seek refuge in a domestic abuse shelter. The husband, through support of his tribe, was able to gain custody of their two children. He continued his violent behavior, at one point, throwing their two-year-old child across the room. The woman was never able to regain custody.

In addition to domestic abuse, Native American women also experience the highest levels of sexual and domestic abuse of any group. A report from the American Indian Women’s Chemical Health Project found that three-fourths of Native American women have experienced some type of sexual assault in their lives. However, most remain silent due to cultural barriers, a high level of mistrust for white dominated agencies, fear of familial alienation, and a history of inactivity by state and tribal agencies to prosecute crimes committed against them.

"There are cultural barriers and a lack of understanding of culture in general," said sexual offense worker Bonnie Clairmont, of the current systems meant to support survivors of sex crimes. As reported by The Circle On-Line, July 1999, she says, "One of the crucial things many professionals do not understand, is that Native Americans have a legitimate reason to distrust 'the system.' After all, memories—both personal and cultural—of forced sterilization and other violent 'treatment' procedures are not so far in the distant past for many Native Americans."

The Report on Violence Against Alaska Native Women in Anchorage, conducted by community agencies in Anchorage, Alaska, found a widespread fear and distrust for law enforcement. Nearly all of the women interviewed felt the system had "turned its back on them" and insisted that their rights had been systematically violated. The report documents an instance involving an Anchorage police officer and a Native Alaskan woman who had been held hostage and dragged across the lawn by an intimate partner. The officer ignored her report and proceeded to tell the woman to undress so he could look for bruises. "I was afraid they might lift up my clothing or maybe that they all would rape me . . . ," the woman said. " I was just terrified." The police falsely claimed the woman was drunk at the time of the incident despite a hospital report that refuted this. The woman's attacker was never convicted.

Police and courts tend to ignore cases of violence involving Native American women due to alleged confusion between federal and tribal jurisdiction. Law enforcement and attorneys often are not schooled to deal with the cross-over in dealing between jurisdictions. Eileen Hudon, a sexual abuse counselor from the Minnesota Tndian Women's Resource Center, said there is a "basic ignorance in the whole justice system." This causes blatant violations of the rights of Native American women. Technically, cases involving a non-Native American perpetrator and Native American victim fall under federal jurisdiction. According to the Department of Justice, 70% or more of violence experienced by Native American women is committed by persons not of the same race. The problem of violence against Native American women is exacerbated by federal apathy in law enforcement and the courts, and minimal funding for shelters, counseling, and education in Native American communities.

The cycle of violence is continuing into the next generations of Native Americans. The Seminole Tribune reported in June 1999, "Sexual assault and domestic violence are so widespread in Indian Country that spousal abuse is occurring in younger and younger couples and it is not uncommon for date rape or date physical abuse to occur among teenagers."

"Federal, tribal and state institutions have not made stopping violence against Native American women a priority issue," says NOW National Board Member and Native American woman, Genevieve James. " NOW is committed to raising awareness on the problem and will demand that Native American women receive full protection against violence."

Re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act has appropriated over $4 million dollars to go toward improving services to Native American women who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. However, crimes committed against Native American women still continue to be marginalized if the United States Attorneys do not feel pressure to prosecute these crimes fairly.

NOW is urging that United States Attorney's offices develop statistics on crimes committed against Native American women and make them public. NOW also encourages activists, chapters and states to contact the United States Attorney General's Office and insist that battery, rape, sexual assault, and gender-based violence committed against Native American women be prosecuted to the fullest extent by the law.

NOW will work to educate members and encourages activists to educate others about the growing epidemic of violence against Native American women and to demand that adequate government funding be administered for shelters, counseling, and education in Native American communities.

For more information concerning violence against Native American women, contact:

Mending the Sacred Hoop
202 East Superior Street
Duluth, MN 55802
(218)-722-2781

Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center
2300 15th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55404
(612)-728-2000.

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