Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 15:25 p.m. DST, 19 May 2014
WASHINGTON, D.C. - On American Indian reservations, Native women's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are seriously threatened. Study after study confirm the appalling frequency at which Indigenous women are raped, sexually assaulted and battered. Throughout Indian country, more than one-third of women will be raped during their lifetime.
Today, it is no secret that these women stand a greater chance of being assaulted than living unscathed. The US Department of Justice found that 61% of American Indian women have been subjected to some form of physical assault. Because of the historic and ongoing inaction of the federal government, these women experience a crapshoot application of security and justice.
More disturbing is the role that American citizens and officials play--and don't play--in the violence. Over 70% of assailants are not tribal members, but rather American nationals who entered reservations for a variety of reasons. Some come to hunt. Other perpetrators live with woman who they abuse. And many simply cross the street into neighboring Indian country. [When tribal lands were downsized by the federal government, the borderlines of reservations were manipulated.]
This territorial patchwork could be acceptable, if tribal law applied to non-Natives who travel into reservation grounds. But, reservations are considered dependent nations according to US policy, and therefore cannot arrest, try or incarcerate non-Natives. Heinous crimes like rape are therefore defacto permissible, and a violent or deranged man can assault a women in Indian country with legal immunity.
According to the Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, Federal prosecutors have jurisdiction in reservation regions. This 1978 ruling set a dangerous precedent of nonexistent federal law enforcement, and fundamentally compromised tribal attempts to self-govern and protect members. In 2011, the Justice Department put a plan in motion to place Assistant Attorneys in prosecution capacities within reservations, and a task force to prioritize the safety of women and children.
Many see these measures as too little, and certainly decades late. Indian country largely remains a lawless area, and not because American Indians want it that way. Before 2010, councils were unable to sentence Indian convicts to less than one year of jail time. Recently enacted, the Tribal Law and Order Act now allows tribal courts to incarcerate members for up to three years. Unfortunately, that is the limit, even for the most deplorable crimes.
The roadblocks to prosecution are embedded in the established legislation, but progressive action is beginning to take shape. President Barack Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act in early 2013. This legislation will help protect domestic violence committed by non-Indian husbands, but fails to address non-Indian attackers that are outsiders in the community. When seven of every ten attackers are protected from prosecution, the law is far from impressive. Plus, it is only in a trial phase now in three reservations.
Conservative members of Congress decreased provisions that would punish non-Indian criminals, concerned that non-Native suspects would not receive far trial, and may be crucified for the historic crimes against the First People of the continent. Perhaps the fears of these lawmakers are just projection; statistics clearly show that women are victimized by the current legal system, not men. Republicans would be hard-pressed to find instances where White men have been wronged by the intersection of American and Native law codes.
The United States continually plays Big Brother to tribal officials. By butting into supposed tribal authority, Washington limits the power of the Native justice system as to render it ineffective. Plainly, reservations do not want a weak police force and court system, but many in the federal government would rather risk women's well-being than see bolstered Indigenous agency of any kind.
- The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010: A Step Forward for Native Women (whitehouse.gov)
- Who Deserves Protection in America? Native American Women and the New VAWA (firstpeoples.org)
- How abusers get away with targeting Indian women (salon.com)
- Rape on the Reservation (readersupportednews.org)
- Native Indian women get U.S. Federal legal power to report violence (womennewsnetwork.net)