Finding Justice for Native Women

Native American women face pervasive sexual violence and little help from the laws meant to protect them

| May 17, 2007

An Amnesty International report released late last month revealed a stockpile of shocking statistics about the pervasive sexual violence confronting Native American women. According to the report, 'Maze of Injustice,' more than one in three Native American women will be raped at some point in their lives. What's more, Native American women are nearly three times more likely to be victims of rape and sexual assault than white women in the United States.

Writing for the Progressive, Rita Pyrillis, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, notes that, sadly, these statistics aren't even a full accounting of the number of victims. Confronted with a 'chronically understaffed and underfunded justice and law enforcement system and its confusing jurisdictional lines,' victims of sexual violence lack for both protection and advocacy. 'Not surprisingly, most Indian women never report sexual assaults,' Pyrillis writes. 'When they do, they risk further pain and humiliation only to watch the perpetrator usually go free.'

This jurisdictional confusion is parsed in the Amnesty report, which singles out a 'maze of different tribal, federal, and state areas of authority' as leaving Native women acutely vulnerable to sexual abuse. As the report explains, jurisdiction for a crime committed on tribal land is dependent on whether or not the perpetrator is Native American. 'Consequently,' the report says, 'survivors of sexual violence receive a different response depending on the location where the crime took place and the Indigenous status of the perpetrator, resulting in uneven and inconsistent access to justice and accountability.... Sometimes the confusion and the length of time it takes to decide whether tribal, state, or federal authorities have jurisdiction over a particular crime result in inadequate investigations or in a failure to respond at all.'

On top of the legal labyrinth faced by victims, the health services that Native American rape victims require are desperately lacking. Largely because of a dearth in funding and resources, forensic medical exams are often unavailable, leaving victims with little evidence to incriminate their assailants. As David Melmer reports in >Indian Country Today, the lack of rape test kits at the Indian Health Service on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota means that '[m]ost women travel to Rapid City, up to 120 miles away, to report a rape that will be counted as a statistic for Rapid City, which has the highest per capita rape rate in the country.'

Despite the bleak situation detailed by Amnesty, the group's report has given Native women and their advocates a glimmer of hope. Georgia Little Shield, director of an anti-domestic abuse program called the Pretty Bird Women House on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, tells Melmer that since the report came out and the group was able to create a website, they've received a much-needed boon in funding -- $17,000. And, says Little Shield, more is on the way.

Go there >>Justice Elusive for Native Women