The Northern Cheyenne people have a saying: “A nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it’s finished. No matter how brave its warriors, or how strong its weapons.” Well, we are pretty sure that for much of the Native American community, the nation is near defeat.
What else can we say when one out of every three Native American women report they have been raped, or that an attempt has been made to sexually brutalise them? That is more than 2.5 times the national average. And if you think those numbers are staggering, consider who is carrying out these attacks: at least 86% of sexual assaults are reportedly being perpetrated by non-Native men, according to the US department of justice.
We don’t think about such massive sexual assault rates happening in industrialised places like the US. We think about them as war crimes happening in downtrodden, developing countries. But here we have rates of sexualised violence that rival anything the Women’s Media Center project Women Under Siege has documented in Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, 12% of women say they’ve been raped in their lifetime.
A culture of remarkably high impunity is also thriving. The justice department reports that it makes arrests in merely 13% of the sexual assaults reported by Native women. That comparees with 32% for white women, according to the New York Times. Native women are also not reporting crimes, because they trust that nothing will be done in the terrible knot that is the tribal lands’ jurisdictional confusion (between tribal courts and the federal government), and a combination of racism, a lack of victim services, and not enough police. Whatever’s going on, justice is not taking root.
“When you make that first phone call and there is one officer for the entire tribal community and he can’t respond or take evidence, and then a woman experiences racism at the hospital,” said Cristina Finch, the policy and advocacy director of women’s human rights at Amnesty International USA, that’s when a woman gives up, goes home, and tries to live the rest of her life battered and broken, struggling to survive after rape. According to Finch, racism is “a very large factor” in what is happening to Native American women.