Sexual violence against Native women is the result of a number of factors and continues a history of widespread human rights abuses against Indigenous peoples in the U.S. Historically, Native American women were raped by settlers and soldiers, including during the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk of the Navajo. Such attacks were not random or individual; they were tools of conquest and colonization.
The attitudes towards Indigenous peoples that underpin such human rights abuses continue to be present in in the USA today. They contribute to the present high rates of sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and help to shield their attackers from justice. They also reflect a broader societal norm that devalues women and girls and creates power dynamics that enable sexual violence against women of all backgrounds.
Native survivors face multi-layered effects of the jurisdictional maze, colonization, governmental policies such as assimilation and boarding schools, and the resulting loss of traditional culture.1
Barriers to Help-Seeking and/or Reporting
- No or limited access or knowledge of traditional healing and/or justice practices.
- Confusion regarding who has legal jurisdiction to prosecute and investigate crimes committed against Native women who live on reservation lands or within Indian Country.
- Fear and mistrust of non-Native agencies may exist as a result of historically prejudicial policies and procedures pertaining to Native people.
- Cultural barriers due to the lack of culturally appropriate programs serving Native victims of violence.
Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)
The 1978 Supreme Court issued a decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe2 which impacted the sovereignty of tribal nations and their ability to protect themselves. "Indian Tribal Courts do not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians, and hence may not assume such jurisdiction unless specifically authorized by Congress to do so."
Reports show that in cases of Native women raped, 86 percent of assailants are non-Native and 70 percent of assailants are white.3
VAWA provided for some sovereign power to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence both Indians and non-Indians who assault Indian spouses or dating partners or violate a protection order in Indian country. VAWA 2013 also clarifies tribes’ sovereign power to issue and enforce civil protection orders against Indians and non-Indians. The law is voluntary and does not change the responsibility of the federal or state governments to prosecute crimes in Indian country. However, this does not apply to rape victims.
Traumatic experiences shared by communities can result in cumulative emotional and psychological wounds that are carried across generations. This concept is called historical trauma. As a result, many people in these same communities experience higher rates of mental and physical illness, substance abuse, and erosion in families and community structures. The persistent cycle of trauma destroys family and communities and threatens the vibrancy of entire cultures.
Historical trauma is not just about what happened in the past. It's about what's still happening.4
- National Indigenous Women's Resource Center
- Maze of Injustice, Amnesty International
- Tribal Law & Policy Institute
- Tribal Implementation of VAWA, National Congress of American Indians
- Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition
- Safety & Accountability Audit of the Response to Native Women Who Report Sexual Assault in Duluth, Minnesota, Battered Women's Justice Project
Culturally Specific Sexual Assault Services in Washington State
- Swinomish Indian Tribe
- Pathways to Healing, Cowlitz Indian Tribe
- Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe
- Port Gamble S'Klallam Indian Tribe
- Lower Elwha Family Advocacy
- Lummi Victims of Crime
- Jamestown S'Klallam Indian Tribe
- Sexual Assault Advocacy Guide, Mending the Sacred Hoop
- Sovereignty of the Soul: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America, National Indigenous Women's Resource Center
- Maze of Injustice – Amnesty International USA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.amnestyusa.org/reports/maze-of-injustice/
- Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, (1978).
- American Indians and Crime - Bureau of Justice Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/aic.pdf
- Types of Trauma and Violence. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence/types