Campaign launched to stop violence against Native women

Native women advocates on Tuesday hailed the release of an Amnesty International report as the first step in a long campaign to combat sexual assault in Indian Country.

"Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA" highlights statistics and stories all too familiar to tribal communities. Native women are victims of violence, including rape, at the highest rates of any group in the nation, and the crimes against them often go unreported and unpunished.

"People haven't acknowledged it as a significant problem," said Bonnie Clairmont, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. "It has become a huge national disgrace."

Clairmont, who works on victims' advocacy for the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, spoke a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., last night after the release of the report. She was joined by Winona Flying Earth, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who advocates for victims in South Dakota.

Both speakers recounted the decades of work by Native women to draw attention to domestic and sexual violence in Indian Country. They cited successes -- such as the inclusion of a tribal section in the Violence Against Women Act -- but noted that the issue isn't on the national, or even international, radar despite the shocking statistics.

"We're not a political force to be dealt with," said Flying Earth, noting that American Indians and Alaska Natives make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population.

With the support of Amnesty International, the advocates hoped the picture would change. "It kind of feels like a gift," Clairmont said, while holding up the 113-page report released by the human rights' watchdog.

Cheryl Hotchkiss, the campaigner for women's rights at Amnesty International, said the report calls attention to the "alarmingly high rates" of sexual violence against Native women. More than that, it identifies obstacles unique to Indian Country, she said.

"All women have a right to be safe," Hotchkiss said.

The system of criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country shoulders most of the blame in the report. Depending on the race of the victim and of the perpetrator, as well as the location of the crime, prosecution could fall to the tribal, state or federal governments.

But tribal governments are hindered by federal law and court decisions, the report notes. The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 limits incarceration to one year and fines to $5,000, and the U.S. Supreme Court has blocked tribes from prosecuting non-Indians except where authorized by treaty or statute.

Tribes are further limited by inadequate federal resources for law enforcement and justice systems, according to the report. "They've really limited the ability of the tribal nations to respond to these crimes," Rachel Ward, an Amnesty International researcher, said of the federal impositions on sovereignty.

State governments are responsible for prosecuting non-Indian offenders and in places like Alaska, where the federal government ceded jurisdiction. But the system doesn't always work, according to the report.

"It is hard to prosecute cases where there is a Native American victim and a non-Native American perpetrator," a former federal prosecutor told Amnesty International.

Even when the FBI is responsible, there are problems, according to the report. People interviewed by Amnesty International said they never hear about their cases once federal agents enter the picture.

"They take the evidence and they're gone," Clairmont said. She said the FBI often refuses to share information, which limits the tribes' ability to act on a sexual violence case.

The report largely focuses on three areas -- Oklahoma, Alaska and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota -- due to the jurisdictional issues posed in those localities. But Flying Earth said Native women everywhere face the same challenges.

"Basically, you will find the same situations" on reservations across the country, she said.

In Oklahoma, tribal land and individual Indian land is interspersed with state land, a patchwork system that complicates the handling of sexual violence cases, according to the report. The state has the 12th highest incidence of rape, based on figures from the FBI.

In Alaska, the federal government gave jurisdiction to the state through Public Law 280. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that land owned by Alaska Native corporations is not Indian Country. The sexual assault rate among Alaska Native women surpasses the rate among other Native women.

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota faces challenges due its size and high rates of violence. "Crime rates on the reservation often exceed those of its surrounding areas," the report says.

The report makes 53 recommendations to improve the justice system in Indian Country. Of these, several key recommendations call on federal and state governments, including the U.S. Congress, to take action to prevent violence against Native women through consultation with tribes, changes in legislation, better collection of data, increased federal funding and greater cooperation among law enforcement and health agencies.

"When the federal government has failed to protect Native women -- one in three Native women are victims of rape -- change must occur and it must occur now," said Joe Garcia, the president of the National Congress of American Indians. "It is not only up to Indian Country to navigate through this 'maze of injustice,' but it is also the federal government's responsibility to create a clear path through it."

Get the Report:
Full Report | Press Release

Online Discussion:
Violence against Native American and Alaska Native Women (April 24, 2007)

Relevant Links:
Join Voices with Native American and Alaska Native Women and Take Action to Stop the Violence -

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