Sexual violence scars Native American women

New law aims to protect indigenous women on US reservations from sky-high rates of sexual assault and offender impunity.

White Earth Nation, Minnesota – It seems like an idyllic memory at first – hiding under a table as a small child, watching her family as they go about their business, unaware of her presence.

But quickly the memory takes a darker turn as Lisa Brunner recounts listening to the screams of her mother as her stepfather beat her, first with his hands, and then with the butt of a shotgun. 

“I was literally born into violence,” says Brunner. 

“I call it hunting – non-natives come here hunting. They know they can come onto our lands and rape us with impunity because they know that we can’t touch them.

– Lisa Brunner, rape survivor advocate

In another instance, she recalls running with her mother out of their home across a field and into the woods, her stepfather screaming in the distance.

“I’d found a safe haven,” Brunner says. “I would take her into the woods, and she would pass out. And I’d sit and listen for his screams all night.” If she thought he was getting closer, she would wake her mother and they would run deeper into the woods, deeper into the night. 

Brunner, who was sexually abused throughout her childhood by multiple people, now works as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in her community, the White Earth Nation in Minnesota, and other Native American communities around the US. 

“It was a natural way to be, to become that advocate. What really triggered it was all of the violence that occurred.”

Indigenous women in the US experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country. According to the US Department of Justice, nearly half of all Native American women have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner; one in three will be raped in their lifetime; and on some reservations, women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average.

While the numbers are staggering, the reality that advocates such as Brunner see in their work and communities exposes the depth of the crisis.

One of the services that Brunner provides through a group she runs, the Sacred Spirits First Nations Coalition, is outreach to local teenagers. She recalls what one young girl told her about rape: “My mom and I already talked about that. When I’m raped, we won’t report it, because we know nothing will happen. We don’t want to cause problems for our family.”

Not if she is raped – but when.

Closing loopholes


 Inside Story Americas – Can laws protect Native American women?

Last week’s vote in the US House of Representatives to reauthorise the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with new protections for Native American women is a significant victory for women such as Brunner, who are living through an epidemic of sexual violence in their communities.

The reauthorised act seeks to address part of the crisis by extending tribal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit crimes of domestic violence or sexual assault against a Native American spouse or partner. Tribal governments in the US currently do not have jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit crimes on their land.

According to the Department of Justice, 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults against Native American women are committed by non-Native American men.

“This strengthens tribal jurisdictions where, frankly, we’ve had an epidemic of sexual violence,” Republican Congressman Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw nation in Oklahoma and one of the main supporters of the new tribal amendments, told Al Jazeera following the House vote. “This was an effort to give tribes the ability to deal with the problem.”

Reservation demographics play an important role. A significant portion of residents on reservations are non-native, largely a result of the US government’s sale of tribal land to white settlers around the turn of the century. In Mahnomen County, where Lisa lives and which lies entirely on the White Earth reservation, half the population is white. 

Tribes must rely on the federal, or in some cases state, government to prosecute crimes by non-Native Americans that happen on their territory. 

But relying on federal or state authorities also often means having to travel hundreds of kilometres to the nearest forensic examiner or prosecutor – and federal prosecution of crimes on tribal land is rare.

According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2005 and 2009, 67 percent of sexual abuse cases sent to the federal government for prosecution were declined. Justice Department officials told Al Jazeera the low prosecution rate is attributable to a lack of evidence, or issues with witnesses in the majority of cases.

While the reauthorised version of VAWA is without a doubt stronger than previous ones, the provisions expanding tribal jurisdiction are still narrow. Tribes continue to have limited sentencing authority – up to three years, which could mean that some cases still are sent to federal or state authorities for prosecution. The new provisions are also geared towards targeting domestic or dating violence.

For instance, the act would not apply to someone in the situation Brunner’s teenage daughter found herself in last year. She was raped last summer by four strangers from outside the reservation. 

“I call it hunting – non-natives come here hunting. They know they can come onto our lands and rape us with impunity because they know that we can’t touch them,” Brunner says. “The US government has created that atmosphere.”

Looking back

“We also need cultivation of tribal justice systems, so that tribes … can take action on their own terms.”

– Sarah Deer, law professor

Jurisdictional loopholes are only one part of the equation, however.

“There is a history of racism and oppression for native women which makes predators think somehow we are vulnerable and that we’re not protected by the system,” said Sarah Deer, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota and member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. “So you maybe have a hate crime component of this along with a jurisdictional problem.”

While a large number of the sexual assaults against Native American women are perpetrated by non-native men, there are still many cases of domestic violence being committed by Native American males. 

“Native women (traditionally) were always able to exercise political power and social power in their communities,” Deer explains. “That has been somewhat tempered by assimilation, where tribes have taken on some of the patriarchal stereotypes of American culture. When native men commit these crimes, they’re acting out against their cultural values.”

Tribal advocates say the trauma of their ancestors has been passed down through generations, with painful memories still fresh: brutal and bloody wars, forced relocation and stolen land. There were also the boarding schools where many Native American children were forcibly removed from their families in an effort to assimilate them into white culture – and where sexual abuse is well-documented. Cultural traditions have been broken, tribal governments weakened.

“If we can replace the violence with our strong cultural values about women, I think we’ll start to stem the tide of violence,” says Deer. “We also need cultivation of tribal justice systems, so that tribes aren’t depending on the state government or the federal government to take action, but can take action on their own terms.”

A next generation

 ‘One billion rising’ campaign against sexual violence


As they prepare dinner one night, Brunner and her eldest daughter joke about her increased appetite now that she and her boyfriend are expecting their first child.

Both of Brunner’s daughters are survivors of sexual assault – the eldest by an uncle when she was a child, the other after last summer’s assault.

Brunner says despite being excited about her first grandchild, she worries if it’s a girl, she will have to contend with a system stacked against the pursuit of justice; that she won’t be able to escape what the past generations of women in her family have endured.

At her home in Mahnomen, Brunner asks this reporter how she slept. When the question is returned, Brunner responds that she didn’t sleep well. 

“I dreamt about the men that hurt my daughter.”

Brunner straightens the sleeves of her light sweater, all that protects her from the winter cold outside. She looks out the window with an uneasy expression.

“My daughter told me she dreamt about them, too.”

Source: Al Jazeera