The Impact of Violence in Indian Country

Indigenous women are disproportionately victims of sexual violence.

Illustrator: Katie Keywood

Colonizers have long tried to crush the spirits of indigenous people through assimilation, aggression, and abuse. One of the most devastating practices to manifest itself up until the present day is sexual assault. Non-native men continue to rape Native women, and tragically, many of these assaults go unpunished. This is partly the result of a 1978 Supreme Court case that stripped Native Americans of their right to prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes committed on their lands.

The long and rigorous battle for Native authority began when two non-Native Americans were arrested on the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Washington during the Suquamish’s annual Chief Seattle Days celebration in the 1970s. The first of these men was Mark David Oliphant, who was arrested and charged with assaulting a tribal officer and resisting arrest. The second of these men was Daniel Belgarde, who was arrested and charged with recklessly endangering another person and injuring tribal property.

“According to the Justice Department, Native American women are two and a half times more likely to be raped than women of other ethnicities.”

Though Belgarde and Oliphant clearly committed crimes, both argued that the Suquamish tribal court did not have jurisdiction over non-Native members—in turn filing a writ of habeas corpus, which, according to Lectric Law Library, is a judicial mandate ordering that an inmate be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully and whether or not they should be released from custody.

Ultimately, the case made it to the Supreme Court, and in 1978, a jury ruled that Native Americans did not have the authority to arrest or prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes committed on their land. This tragic decision made way for a perfect storm.

As a result of the lack of authority, non-native criminals are arguably more encouraged to commit a crime on reservations, where they believe that they are above the law, than they are to commit a crime off of reservations, where they know that they are under it. This is especially alarming considering how many non-Native individuals live on and visit reservations.

According to the Justice Department, only 13 percent of sexual assaults reported by Native American women result in an arrest, compared to 35 percent for black women and 32 percent for white women. This could be because 86 percent of assailants in these sexual assault cases are non-Native.

Adding insult to injury, federal attorneys, who are often the only lawyers who can try non-Native people who commit crimes on reservations, often don’t prosecute because they believe they have more severe crimes to take care of. This is an atrocity, as the sexual assault of Native American women has become all too common. According to the Justice Department, Native American women are two and a half times more likely to be raped than women of other ethnicities. In fact, one in three Native American women is said to be raped in their lifetime. This is a reality that needs to be rectified.

It is important to note that the jury in the Belgarde and Oliphant case acknowledged the fact that their ruling had the potential to leave crimes committed by non-Natives on Native land unresolved. They hoped, however, that Congress would take action and come up with a better solution. Unfortunately, Congress did not act for 35 years.

The first of Congress’ actions took place in 2009, when Attorney General Eric Holder made it a priority of the Department of Justice to improve public safety on Native land through the Tribal Law and Order Act. This bill strived to eliminate chaos within law enforcement communities by establishing new and improved ways of handling crime. President Obama signed the bill into law on July 29, 2010.

The second of Congress’ actions took place in 2013, after years of protesting for revisions to the Violence Against Women Act of 1994—specifically, revisions to laws regarding dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. On March 7, 2013, President Obama signed a document allowing Native American tribes to prosecute non-Native Americans for domestic and dating violence.

Though these actions were positive and progressive, sadly, they fell short. The new laws only cover domestic and dating violence; they do not include other crimes, such as assault by a stranger or rape.

“It’s a hazard to be an Indian woman,” Brunner said in an interview with Aljazeera.

Lisa Brunner—a member of the Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota and the executive director of Sacred Spirits First Nations Coalition, a program serving Native women—became an advocate for women after witnessing violence beginning with her mother and extending to herself and her daughter.

In 2014, Brunner spoke to The Washington Post about her daughter’s assault, which was committed by non-Natives who were never held accountable for their actions. Her chilling statement reads: “They come here to hunt. What they did to my daughter was premeditated. They came with condoms to use and bandanas to keep the dust out of their faces. They came here with the intent and purpose of finding a Native woman to rape because they knew that they could.”

Brunner went on to tell the Post that what is happening to Native women today is a modern example of “cowboys versus Indians” and that the U.S. needs to put an end to their suffering.

“It’s a hazard to be an Indian woman,” Brunner said in an interview with Aljazeera. “The reality of our daughters here is not a matter of if I’m raped, but a matter of when. Mothers are preparing their daughters to be raped. That’s where we’re at.”

The justice system is failing Native women. It is failing to instill confidence in Native women to report sexual violence, it is failing to fund proper aid, and it is failing to create a coherent justice system.

“No matter where we are in the world, violence against women is a global issue,” Brunner concluded.