The Perpetual Cycle of Violence Against Native American Women: Liberty and Justice for Some

Valentina Meo is a second year in History and International relations that loves to travel, read, and debate in Model United Nations.

[Featured Image: Rep. Deb Haaland outside wearing one of her campaign buttons.]

Watching Rep. Deb Haaland, a former New Mexico Democratic Party Chair and a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and Rep. Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Kansas, stand proudly next to Speaker Pelosi on January 3rd and become the first two Native American women sworn into Congress was a long overdue milestone. While their elections will bring the much-needed perspectives of Native American women into the national conversation, all throughout North America the voices of indigenous women are being ignored. With over 56.2 million acres of land total in the continental United States under the control of various Native American tribes, and while many are small sections there are 12 Native American reservations larger than the state of Rhode Island, with the Navajo nation reservation is as big as West Virginia. The complicated network of state, federal, and tribal law and the underlying racism in the systems make issues that concern Native American much more complicated to resolve. One of the main issues that face Native American women specifically are the disproportionate levels of violence these women face, and the inaction of the federal government to provide the necessary resources and manpower to help bring justice to the large numbers of women who are assaulted.

Violence against indigenous women in the entirety of the North American continent has reached unprecedented levels. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, and 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence, and have reported rates of domestic violence 10 times higher than the rest of the United States. While this data is limited, the lack of federal response is extremely harmful to continuing a cycle of violence against indigenous women, who, on certain reservations, are murdered at more than 10 times the national average. In 2016 and 2017 over 5,000 women were entered as missing into the National Crime Information Center database, yet the difficulties of solving those cases lies in a confusing jurisdiction process as well as a mess of local, state, and federal laws. There are startlingly few statistics about the number of missing indigenous women in the continent, with 30-40% of the cases not being prosecuted, with the FBI citing insufficient evidence or with the cases being turned back to the tribes themselves, who are lacking the numbers and resources to properly handle these cases. Native children suffer rates of PTSD three times higher than the rest of the American population, partly due to the constant violence Native American women face and their inability to bring their abusers, rapists, or murderers brought to justice.

While there are hundreds of treaties passed by the Supreme Court, by the federal and state governments affirming the independence of the native nations and their power to self-government, the United States government has created race-based criminal jurisdictional scheme to limit the abilities of the Indian nations to protect Native women from violence. For the past 35 years, the US government has been progressively stripping Indian nations of all criminal authority over non-Indians, who commit the vast majority (96%) of sexual violence against Native women. Between 2005 and 2009, US attorneys declined to prosecute 67% of the Indian country matters referred to them involving sexual abuse and related matters, and many crimes are not even investigated. This abuse is not restricted just to Indian reservations in Alaska either, Seattle is one of the cities with the highest numbers of raped, missing, or murdered indigenous women, despite its reputation as a liberal city. This perpetuates a cycle of violence that threatens the lives of native women and girls and allows criminal to act with impunity on tribal land, and women shouldn’t be treated differently or discriminated against simply because of where the assault took place.

This failure of the United States’ government to ensure native American women a life free from violence, is in obvious contrast with US law and responsibility to Indian Nations, but also in its obligated to do so under international law; namely the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There have been pressures from several grassroots movements that have been working internationally and domestically to pass the Violence against Women Act, with added provisions that restored tribal criminal authority to address violence against Native women by non-Natives on Indian lands, which was passed in 2013 and signed into legislation by President Obama. However, there is still much progress to be made as tribes cannot prosecute non-Indian abusers, even if the tribal community ensures their federal rights remain intact. Many Indian nations are developing the necessary infrastructure including tribal police department, codes, and courts to ensure the safety of the Native women and girls within their territories in case jurisdiction is returned over to the tribes.

In this new #MeToo era, where sexual violence is talked about more consistently in the news and many more survivors are getting to see their abusers brought to justice before the courts, Native Americans deserve better than the current system. With this newly elected wave of congresswomen, it’s up to these new faces to continue to fight for justice for all women; especially Native Americans who have been deprived of their voices by the legislative system for so long.


[Image Source: National Geographic.]

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