For Native Women, High Price of Rape Goes Untold

The Cherokee Nation has begun an advertising campaign to encourage native women to seek help.Credit: Photo by Suzette Brewer

The Cherokee Nation has begun an advertising campaign to encourage native women to seek help.
Credit: Photo by Suzette Brewer

There’s no way to quantify the damage, but tribal leaders estimate it’s in the billions. “It happens every day in every native community; it’s that common,” says Jodi Gillette, former special assistant on Native American Affairs to the White House.

By Suzette Brewer, WeNews Correspondent

STILWELL, Okla. (WOMENSENEWS)– For six years Brendan Johnson served as U.S. attorney for the State of South Dakota.

During his time as federal prosecutor, Johnson says fully 100 percent of the women and girls engaged in the sex trafficking industry were victims of rape and-or sexual abuse earlier in their lives.

“We had an underage girl from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota who was picked up in Sioux Falls and wound up in a sex ring,” said Johnson, who is now in private practice, in a phone interview from his office in Sioux Falls, S.D. “She was a single mother and had not a penny to her name, which is very common. She didn’t want to rely on government assistance because of the fear that her child would be taken away. She had also been sexually abused prior to this. So the high economic impact of these situations is hard to accurately quantify, because of post-traumatic stress disorder and the related issues for girls who are vulnerable targets for these criminals.”

Tribal women are the most vulnerable group of women when it comes to rape; nearly three times as likely to suffer sexual assault than all other races in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

“It happens every day in every native community–it’s that common,” says Jodi Gillette, the former special assistant on Native American Affairs to the White House. “I know literally dozens of women who have told me at one point or another that they were raped or sexually abused, but no one talks about it because of the stigma. So they suffer in silence.”

Gillette, who now serves as a tribal policy advisor for the Sonosky Chambers law firm in Washington, D.C., recently testified at the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva that even with recent passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, which closed jurisdictional gaps and allowed non-tribal perpetrators to be tried in tribal courts, much work remains to be done.

Basic Services a Struggle

“Many tribes struggle to provide basic victims services, necessary training and staff for courts and adequate mental health care,” said Gillette in a recent phone interview. “To this day, tribes still cannot prosecute non-Indians for child abuse, rape and other serious crimes against women and children and must rely on the federal authorities, who usually only prosecute the worst crimes. This leaves vulnerable many Indigenous women and children unprotected in their own homelands.”

Nearly one-third of tribal women, or approximately 875,000 nationwide, report being raped at some time in their lives. Two-thirds of their perpetrators are non-Indian, who until very recently could not be prosecuted in tribal court and are still unlikely to ever face formal charges for their crimes in state or federal court. This is due, in part, to the fact that–despite the recent expansions of tribal court to prosecute rape–many smaller and-or remote tribes either do not have their own tribal court systems and do not have the resources to establish one.

The scourge of rape in Indian country has impacted every single community among the nation’s 567 federally-recognized tribes, whose total population hovers around 5.2 million.

The costs–both emotional and financial–are staggering for communities already beset by poverty and its attendant social problems in geographically isolated regions.

The American College of Emergency Physicians, based in Irving, Texas, estimates that the tangible costs of rape–for both the victim and the society–are approximately $150,000 per victim. That amount covers a range of categories including expenses for justice and prosecution, physical and mental health issues for the woman and her family, social services including emergency response teams and shelters, loss of education, loss of wages and/or employment.

Emotional costs, including pain and suffering for the victim and her children, possible death of the victim, including suicide and others, are incalculable.

Native American writer Louise Erdrich, in her 2012 book “The Round House,” tells the story of Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe woman who has been raped on Indian land. After her attacker goes free because of jurisdictional issues on Indian reservations, her teenaged son sets out on a quest to seek justice for his mother, who has retreated to her bed, paralyzed by grief and trauma.

Though the story is fictional, Erdrich’s book accurately captures the terrible toll of rape for Native women

Tribal leaders estimate that the final tally is in the billions for native communities already strapped by poverty and lack of opportunity.

Overlapping Issues

The pervasive and pernicious nature of sexual assault and abuse overlaps with a variety of other serious issues within native communities.

“Sexual assault presents some of the greatest challenges in Indian country,” Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in a recent email interview. “Because of the devastating impact that sexual assault can have on self-worth and self-esteem, we know that it may be a contributing factor to the epidemic of youth suicides. As we try to help tribal communities cope with a suicide crisis, it is imperative that we address each of the risk factors. For that reason, we have been working on better responding to the needs of survivors of sexual assault.”

Across the country, geographic isolation and jurisdictional complexities continue to be the biggest obstacles in both the prosecution and restitution of these crimes, particularly in Alaska, which has 229 tribes and is nearly three times larger than Texas.

The Northern Plains and the tribes of the Southwest are similarly situated, with tribal law enforcement and social service departments already bursting with overflowing caseloads and limited resources to prosecute. But with a growing sense of urgency, many tribes are redirecting as many resources as possible to address what is regarded as a human rights crisis in Indian communities.

The two largest tribes–the Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation, for example–have dedicated agencies to assist their tribal members who are victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes. In 2013, the Cherokee Nation opened the One Fire Victims Service Office, which provides emergency advocate assistance to law enforcement, transitional housing and even legal assistance for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or dating violence.

Help Navigating the System

The Navajo Nation Victims Assistance Program also works closely with the three states within its boundaries–Arizona, New Mexico and Utah–to assist its tribal members with help in navigating the legal system, as well as completing applications for financial assistance for health-related expenses, costs of funerals, lost wages, eyewear, and Native healing ceremonies and traditional medicine people.

The smaller tribes, many of whom have poor economies and high unemployment, still struggle with the enormous legal, logistic and financial burdens of sexual assault in their communities.

For them, not much has changed over the years, in spite of new legislation and programs to help stem the violence against Native women.

Gillette recalls a high school friend from the 1980s whose case is one of the few that have ever gone to trial. She says her friend, who was from the Northern Plains, was skewered and portrayed as a “whore” on the stand after being gang-raped by a half-dozen white teenagers from a neighboring community, even though she was a virgin at the time of the assault. Nonetheless, her perpetrators went free while her friend felt punished for coming forward.

“They made an example of her,” said Gillette, who remains haunted by her friend’s case. “The message was clear, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you if you tell.’ And she was only 15 years old. In this day and age, you’d think we’re past that–but we’re not.”

Rape on the Reservation

By Louise Erdrich

Published: February 26, 2013
As featured in:
 The New York times Opinion Pages

MINNEAPOLIS

TWO Republicans running for Congressional seats last year offered opinions on “legitimate rape” or God-approved conceptions during rape, tainting their party with misogyny. Their candidacies tanked. Words matter.

Having lost the votes of many women, Republicans now have the chance to recover some trust. The Senate last week voted resoundingly to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, the 1994 law that recognized crimes like rape, domestic abuse and stalking as matters of human rights.

But House Republicans, who are scheduled to take up the bill today and vote on it Thursday, have objected to provisions that would enhance protections for American Indians, undocumented immigrants and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, among other vulnerable populations.

Here in Minneapolis, a growing number of Native American women wear red shawls to powwows to honor survivors of sexual violence. The shawls, a traditional symbol of nurturing, flow toward the earth. The women seem cloaked in blood. People hush. Everyone rises, not only in respect, for we are jolted into personal memories and griefs. Men and children hold hands, acknowledging the outward spiral of the violations women suffer.

The Justice Department reports that one in three Native women is raped over her lifetime, while other sources report that many Native women are too demoralized to report rape.  Perhaps this is because federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office. Further tearing at the social fabric of communities, a Native woman battered by her non-Native husband has no recourse for justice in tribal courts, even if both live on reservation ground. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.

The Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center says this gap in the law has attracted non-Indian habitual sexual predators to tribal areas. Alexandra Pierce, author of a 2009 report on sexual violence against Indian women in Minnesota, has found that there rapes on upstate reservations increase during hunting season. A non-Indian can drive up from the cities and be home in five hours. The tribal police can’t arrest him.

To protect Native women, tribal authorities must be able to apprehend, charge and try rapists — regardless of race. Tribal courts had such jurisdiction until 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have inherent jurisdiction to try non-Indians without specific authorization from Congress. The Senate bill would restore limited jurisdiction over non-Indians suspected of perpetrating sex crimes, but even this unnerves some officials. “You’ve got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right?” said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.”

Leaving aside the fact that most Native defendants tried in the United States face Indian-free juries, and disregarding the fulsome notion that Native people can’t be impartial jurists, Mr. Grassley got his facts wrong. Most reservations have substantial non-Indian populations, and Native families are often mixed. The Senate version guarantees non-Indians the right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.

Tribal judges know they must make impeccable decisions. They know that they are being watched closely and must defend their hard-won jurisdiction. Our courts and lawyers cherish every tool given by Congress. Nobody wants to blow it by convicting a non-Indian without overwhelming, unshakable evidence.

Since 1990, when Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator from Delaware, drafted the original legislation, the Violence Against Women Act has been parsed and pored over. During reauthorizations in 2000 and 2005, language on date rape and orders of protection was added. With each iteration, the act has become more effective, inclusive and powerful. Without it, the idea that some rape is “legitimate” could easily have been shrugged off by the electorate.

Some House Republicans maintain that Congress lacks the authority to subject non-Indians to criminal trials in tribal court, even though a Supreme Court opinion from 2004 suggests otherwise. Their version of the bill, as put forward by the majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, would add further twists to the dead-end maze Native American women walk when confronting sexual violence. John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, said it would create “more off ramps for defendants by adding multiple levels of removal and appeal, including the right to sue tribes.” A compromise backed by two other Republicans, Darrell Issa of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, is vastly preferable to the Cantor version. It would offer a non-Indian defendant the right to request removal of his case to a federal court if his rights were violated.

What seems like dry legislation can leave Native women at the mercy of their predators or provide a slim margin of hope for justice. As a Cheyenne proverb goes, a nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.

If our hearts are on the ground, our country has failed us all. If we are safe, our country is safer. When the women in red shawls dance, they move with slow dignity, swaying gently, all ages, faces soft and eyes determined. Others join them, shaking hands to honor what they know, sharing it. We dance behind them and with them in the circle, often in tears, because at every gathering the red shawls increase, and the violence cuts deep.

Louise Erdrich is the author, most recently, of “The Round House.”