Rape in Indian Country
“More than 1 in 3 of American Indian/Alaska Native American (34.1%) will be raped sometime during their life (CDC & DOJ, NVWS 2000)”
I recently attended a community presentation on Sexual Assault in Indian country at Nambe Pueblo, NM. I wasn’t surprised by the statistics, which in itself is appalling, because it means that sexual assault has become such a common practice that I, a Native woman is not surprised by the high numbers of Sexual Assault that occurs on our reservations. What was surprising to me was the lack of community representation at this presentation. Which made me wonder…..What is it going to take for a community to react to a horrible act of violence. How important are our daughters, aunts, grandmothers….. or just women in general? Have we as Native people become so used to facing heartache daily that we expect and accept it, rather then rally to find ways to fix it?
These questions often cross my mind when I attend a community function like this one and out of a large pueblo population, maybe 5 to 7 people show up. It’s part of why I attend these presentations, someone has to spread the word and share this information, I can’t just lye down and be raped again (figuratively speaking). However, that is how I see it. I’d rather fight to the end, then give up and lye down, because then I would have allowed my spirit to be broken. That is not what my ancestors would have done.
What I did learn and was new information to me was that Native American women are more likely to have experienced multiple victimizations through out their life span. So where and how does the healing begin? For those of us in the healthcare system, victims of rape are primarily seen in the ER. However, these victims are usually physically and brutally in need of medical attention, sometimes requiring surgical intervention. As this was the case when I was completing my training in Chinle, AZ. For those who may not have needed immediate medical attention, they may report it at a well woman visit or even at their first prenatal visit. Pregnancy as a result of a rape is also what I’ve encountered when I’ve worked with women in the clinical setting. If they are lucky, they have family support and have made the decision to carry their babies to term and raise them, however this can also be fraught with psychological trauma for a woman. Victims of rape also first report it through child protective services and alcohol treatment centers. However, the reporting is delayed.
There are many reasons why reporting rape is an issue. From the stories I heard during our discussion of why this occurs, it seems that shame is a big reason. Women/girls are not encouraged to report it. Most families want to sweep it under the rug, because 1) Indian country is small, everyone knows everyone; 2) the perpetrator can be someone of respectful importance ie..medicine man; 3) family member; 4) it will look badly on the family; 5) denial, this happens to everyone, don’t make it a big issue; 6) Aside from reporting it, tribes don’t have a good legal way of handling these situations. So why report it…nothing will come of it, other then making your family and self look bad.
“ Less then ½ of all sexual assaults are reported by American Indian/ Alaska Native women”
The legal ramifications for victims of rape in Indian country are just as complex. Hallie White, an attorney who works with the Southwest Center for Law and Policy was able to explain the legal process after a report of rape has been made on the reservation. Three legal entities have the ability to prosecute on the reservation. The Pueblo it’s self, the Feds, and the state. It also depends on the whether the perpetrator or victim where both from the reservation or one was of a different race, and where it occurred…ie On the tribal land or off it. For example:
Perpetrator (native), Victim (native) ON tribal Land = Tribe can prosecute or Feds can prosecute.
Perpetrator (non-native), Victim (native) On tribal land = tribe has no jurisdiction to prosecute the non-native, so the Fed’s can or the State an
Perpetrator (non-native), Victim (non-native) On tribal land = Only state has jurisdiction to prosecute.
This is where it becomes complex, even though the tribe may have the jurisdiction to prosecute, they don’t always have the funds to do so. It is the tribe’s responsibility to pay for the court hearing and for all those involved, if the perpetrator is in fact charged with rape, the tribe has to pay for them to be incarcerated. Tribes don’t always have the financial pockets to pay for this process. In which case, it is why most rape cases get sent to the Feds, who do have the financial pockets to handle these cases. However, they have a long-standing record of not following up on reports. Many get left in limbo.
It is this very reason that a recent law called the “Tribal Law and Order Act.” Every 3 years there is a congressional hearing where all the cases that are being investigated are discussed and the Feds have to show written documentation as to why a reported rape case was either follow-up on or why it was not. This was done in an effort to hold the Feds accountable for their lack of follow through. Another issue with the Fed’s handling rape cases on the reservation is that the U.S. Supreme court will only take 70 cases a year, which means even if they do follow-up on the rape case, it may never get heard in court.
It is for these very reasons that some Native American women are trying find ways to provide cultural support to victims of rape in their community. SAFE STAR is an organization that trains lay people to collect evidence and provide first responder care. They also train tribal prosecutors to litigate sexual assault in tribal court.
For me, this informational session was very helpful, but I still wonder how are we going to get women to first report this act of violence and second how do we as a Native people support those who have had to endure this trauma. Awareness is not enough. Ending a cycle of violence over the many life spans of our ancestors is not going to happen over night, but silence is not the answer.
“Native Women who are victims of sexual assault are more likely:
to be sexually assaulted by a man of another race
to be sexually assaulted by multiple perpetrators
to be sexually assaulted in public
to be sexually assaulted with a weapon used in the commission of the crime (38% with a weapon)
to suffer injuries as a result of the sexual assault..i.e. 50% of all victims =44% resulted in medical care…”