Juana Majel Dixon, first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, said earlier this year that, “Young women on reservations live their lives in anticipation of being raped…They talk about 'how I will survive my rape‚' as opposed to not thinking about it at all.”
“We shouldn't have to live our lives that way,” she added.
But this is the harsh reality that a majority of all American Indian and Native Alaskan women face.
According to the Indian Law Resource Center, one in three native women is raped in her lifetime, while one in six will be domestically abused by a husband, boyfriend or intimate partner.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) estimates that the average annual rate of rape and sexual assault among American Indians is 3.5 times higher than for all races.
Several studies, which rely on statistical data from the Bureau of Justice, indicate that Native American women experience the highest rate of violence of any ethnic or racial group in the United States.
Furthermore, nearly 65 percent of American Indian women surveyed for the National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) reported experiencing rape or physical violence.
Although the high rates of violence in Indian Country have long been the concern of a handful of community organisations, a series of recent gestures by the U.S. federal government suggests that the crisis has become sufficiently dire to merit national attention.
Addressing the press and the public in a conference call Thursday, Thomas Perrelli, associate attorney general with the Department Of Justice, said that the White House and its partners are engaged in consultations with tribes across the country about how best to protect Native women from violence.
He added that domestic violence in particular has reached “epidemic” rates in many Indian communities, and stressed the need for swift action.
Tribal leaders across the country have for decades lamented the limitations of existing legal structures for prosecuting perpetrators of both physical and sexual abuse, as well as stemming the escalating violence on reservations.
Under current law, tribal governments lack the necessary authority to impose punitive measures against perpetrators; in fact, tribal courts can only sentence Indian offenders to one year in prison.
The landmark Tribal Law and Order Act, which celebrates its one year anniversary later this month, extended possible sentencing of offenders from one to three years, but failed to grant tribal governments the authority to put non-Indians behind bars – even if the men in question live on the reservation, are part of the community or are married to tribal people.
Given that 50 percent of Native women have non-Native husbands, according to Kimberly Teehee, White House senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs, these limitations pose huge challenges for tribal governments.
The legislation currently before Congress will address some of the most gaping legal holes in the justice system, including recognising tribes' power to exercise criminal jurisdiction over domestic violence cases regardless of whether the offender is Indian or non- Indian and allowing for harsher sentencing for severe acts of violence such as spousal intimidation, strangling or suffocating.
“The highly complex legal framework in Indian Country – often referred to as a 'jurisdictional maze' – is the key factor creating and perpetuating the disproportionate violence against Indian women,” Katy Jackson, a staff attorney at the National Congress on American Indians (NCAI), told IPS.
“[Therefore] the DOJ's proposals to restore tribal authority to hold on-reservation perpetrators – both Indian and non-Indian – accountable for these heinous crimes are by far the most critical piece of the puzzle at this point in time,” she added.
Judicial changes alone, however, will not be sufficient to tackle the problem. Many experts see the escalating violence as a diffuse and far-reaching plague that must be tackled at various different levels.
“The judicial system is only one component of this crisis and can only help those people who choose to participate in the criminal justice system, which many women do not want to do,” Monika Johnson Hostler, president of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, told IPS.
“So while judicial strides are necessary, we must remember that prevention is the only way to end the actual cycle of violence,” she added.
Jackson added that resources for treatment were also sorely needed.
“Too often, Native victims find themselves going without access to critical, lifesaving services and treatment programs that are more easily acceptable to other victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” she told IPS.
“That is why the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women continues to advocate for increased funding to support tribal coalitions and victim services programmes on tribal lands,” she said.
Another obstacle to justice for Native women is the fact that violence in Indian Country is stripped of its historical background and presented in isolation of its socio-political context, which is perhaps part of the reason why the crisis has received so little attention in the mainstream.
“Colonisation is one of the root causes of violence against Native women,” Lucy Simpson, executive director of the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, told IPS.
'In order to effectively respond to and prevent such violence, we need to address colonisation and its impacts. We need to restore women to their traditional role as sacred within our communities by turning to Native cultures and traditions that already recognise this.”
“We also need to address the poverty and lack of employment and infrastructure in Indian country that prevents adequate responses when violence occurs,” Simpson added.
“We honour the voices and perspectives of American Indian and Alaska Native leaders who speak out about the devastating and lasting effects of colonisation on American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” Anna Marjavi, a project manager at Futures Without Violence, told IPS.
“Many domestic violence and sexual assault advocates who work in Indian Country also believe that violence against Native women is rooted in the colonisation of tribal nations when an unnatural worldview brought a level of violence not seen before by tribal peoples. The path of non-violence and respect for women is the natural life way of indigenous people,” she added.
Furthermore, while punitive actions generally only impact individual survivors and offenders, broader measures such as education and awareness programmes could reach whole communities.
“Not just colonialism and institutionalised racism, but other factors such as the boarding of Native American school children and adopting them en masse out of the own culture perpetuates this violence,” Hostler told IPS.
“Now more than ever people need to understand that words matter, that media matters, that the method of reporting on this issue matters, if society is really going to change its perceptions of women,” she added.