Savanna Greywind was a young woman in Fargo, North Dakota about to give birth in a few weeks when she was brutally murdered. Leona LeClair Kinsey was an older woman living in Oregon when she went missing eighteen years ago. She is still missing. RoyLynn Rides Horse, a Crow tribal member, died in 2016 after being beaten, burned, and left in a field to die.
These stories are all too common, but statistics about how pervasive the problem is are hard to find. Many cases go unreported, others aren’t well documented, and no centralized database exists in the U.S. government to track cases.
According to the Indian Law Resource Center, violence against indigenous women in the U.S. has reached unprecedented levels on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. Alaska Native women have reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the United States. On some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.
“You really have to contact tribe by tribe, family by family, to really see the true impact,” one advocate says. “We are shoved under the rug by corruption even in our own homelands,” says another. “I’m here to say we will not be shoved under the rug anymore.”
At the heart of the problem is the longstanding indifference and hostility to Native Americans, especially Native American women, which can be traced back to the days when separating Native people from their families and homes and denying them their culture was a deliberate attempt to destroy Native beliefs, ways of life, even people.
Continuing racism and sexism contribute to the impression that indigenous women are assailable, says Barbara Perry, a profess at the University of Ontario. “It’s not unusual for women of color generally to be perceived as inferior to white people as a class and inferior white women as a subclass.”
The effects of these travesties remain present in unique ways for Native women. In addition to suffering sex trafficking, sexual violence, and the risk of being disappeared, they are often homeless, living in dire poverty, and totally disconnected from their families and communities.
Now they face a new vulnerability from the flood of non-native workers into oil-rich regions or near reservations. Of particular concern is the workers who will lay the Keystone XL pipeline running from Canada through Montana, Illinois, and Texas, bringing many more workers into the “man camps” being built along the way. The problems that these camps bring is particularly acute in a region stretching across 200,000 square miles along the Montana-North Dakota state line. Attacks there on Native American women have increased dramatically as tens of thousands of transient oil workers have inhabited the temporary housing known as man camps.
Tribal law enforcement has no jurisdiction over non-native men who assault Native American women on reservations, according to Cheryl Bennet, an Arizona State University professor. “If a white person commits murder or rape against a Native American person, the federal government would have jurisdiction over those crimes instead of the tribe or state government.” But when tribal law enforcement sent sexual abuse cases to the FBI and U.S. Attorney Offices, federal prosecutors declined more than two-thirds of the cases, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.
In recent months, the plight of Native women has begun receiving attention thanks to a growing activist movement that is being heard in state capitals and on Capitol Hill. Last year Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), defeated in the November mid-term election, introduced a bill to standardize law enforcement protocols relating to missing and murdered Native Americans. It attracted sixteen co-sponsors but didn’t make it out of committee.
At the state level, Republican Rep. Gina McCabe introduced a House bill in Washington State that would bring the federal, state, and federally recognized sovereign tribal governments together to ensure that everyone in the state who goes missing is reported and listed in a central location. The bill, now making its way through the legislative process, mandates that the State Patrol creates a list of missing Native American women in Washington by June this year, working together with tribal and non-tribal police agencies.
May 5, 2017 marked the first National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. Twelve years earlier, the movement for the safety of Native women, largely spearheaded by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) and other groups, had led the struggle to include a separate title for Native women, called Safety for Indian Women, in the Violence Against Women Act. It was a start in raising awareness of this national issue but much more needs to be done.
More than half of Native American women have been sexually assaulted, including over a third who have been raped during their lifetime. That rate is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than for white women, according to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study.
As the NIWRC said at the first National Day of Awareness, “Before this crisis is sufficiently addressed, it must first be acknowledged.”
That means by all of us.
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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.www.elayne-clift.com