Keeping the U.S. Unsafe for Native American Women

Congress has reservations about protecting all victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Tinnekkia Williams is a Native American and domestic violence activist who works with women at Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota. (Photo: Getty Images)
May 24, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

People are outraged, but not surprised, to read news stories of sex trafficking or systemic violence toward women in crumbling locales in the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa, places torn apart by civil war and lawlessness. But, as pointed out earlier this week, the sad reality is that these gender travesties are occurring everywhere, including at home in the United States.

Health advocates on reservations are seeing mothers coming to inquire about morning after pills for when, not if, their daughters are raped.

The New York Times’ Timothy Williams delivered a report on Tuesday about a culture of violence against women living in Emmonak, Alaska, a remote fishing village of 800 in the Yukon River delta. For generations, rape victims in the town have been ignored by tribal police, or persuaded not to press charges. These American women are left with little recourse against sexual predators.

You can check out Williams’ full article here, but take in a quick breakdown of its more sobering numbers:

—Native Alaskans make up just 15 percent of that state’s population, but represent 61 percent of its victims of sexual assault.

—According to the Justice Department, one in three Native American women has been raped or experienced a rape attempt, twice the national average.

—In 2007, 329 cases of rape were reported within the Navajo Nation, a population of 180,000 spread across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Just 17 arrests were made.

—Nationwide, arrests are made in only 13 percent of rape cases against Native American women (for black women it is 35 percent; for white women, 32 percent).

When President Clinton passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, it was hailed as a landmark reform, creating the Office on Violence Against Women and pumping $1.6 billion toward the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. For the first time, there was an organized, nationwide community response for victims of domestic and sexual violence, as well as automatic and mandatory jail time for the convicted.

One problem was that certain groups—such as Native Americans— weren’t included. Ensuing renewals of the bill in 2000 and 2005 expanded protections to include date rape and stalking victims, but it wasn’t until this April that the Senate voted in a rare show of bipartisanship to add protections for gay, lesbian, undocumented immigrants, and Native American victims.

Last week, House Republicans turned back the clock. Their version of VAWA actually denies protection to undocumented immigrants, Native/indigenous people and LGBT victims of violence. As the Washington Post said in an opinion piece on Tuesday, the backtrack flies in the face of logic: “The provisions deemed so controversial by House Republicans are seen by professionals who deal with domestic violence as logical next steps. Fifteen Republican senators joined with the Democratic majority to support the bill.”

At a time when Native American women need help the most, Republicans are trying to eke out a pyrrhic victory at their expense. Empty accusations from politicians that the provisions helping these women are only there to win over the media are jaded and morally wrong. Violence against women isn’t up for political debate; it’s unacceptable regardless of race or citizenship or creed.

Instead of leading by example, House Republicans have stooped to a new low by putting thousands of women in already marginalized conditions at serious risk.

According to the Times’ Williams, the situation for Native American women is now so bleak that some advocates are reluctantly starting to question whether they should advise victims to press charges—the anguish of seeing justice unserved is too much to bear. Equally frightening, health advocates working on reservations are seeing mothers coming to inquire about morning after pills for when, not if, their daughters are raped. It’s a horrifying mentality that, until recently, we might have convinced ourselves existed only in the most savage parts of the world.

What are some ways we can make reservations safer for Native American women? Let us know in the COMMENTS.