Maze of Injustice – The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA
Sexual violence against women is not only a criminal or social issue it is a human rights abuse. All women have the right to be safe and free from violence.
More than one in three Native American and Alaska Native women are survivors of rape. Sexual violence against Indigenous women in the USA is widespread. According to US government statistics, American Indian and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the USA. Some Indigenous women interviewed by AI said they didn’t know anyone in their community who had not experienced sexual violence. Though rape is always an act of violence, there is evidence that Indigenous women are more likely than other women to suffer additional violence at the hands of their attackers. Data collected by the Department of Justice shows that a majority of perpetrators are non-Native.
Sexual violence against Indigenous women is informed and conditioned by an unresolved history of widespread and egregious human rights violations against Indigenous peoples in the USA. Indigenous women were raped by settlers and soldiers in many infamous episodes in the early history of the United States. Such attacks were not random or individual; they were tools of conquest and colonization.
Indigenous women are denied protection and justice and the perpetrators go unpunished.
Della Brown, a 33 year old Alaska Native woman, was raped, mutilated and murdered. Her body was discovered in an abandoned shed in Anchorage in September 2000. Her skull was so pulverized the coroner compared her head to a “bag of ice”. Police believe a number of people walked through the shed, lighting matches in order to view her battered remains, but did not report the murder to the Anchorage police. To date, no-one has been brought to justice for this crime.
Federal laws and policies have dangerously undermined the ability of tribal governments, police and courts to respond to crimes of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women.
Women who come forward to report sexual violence are caught in a maze of tribal, state and federal law. The US Federal Government has created a complex interrelation between these three jurisdictions that is confusing and often allows perpetrators to evade justice. 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.
Law enforcement in Indian Country and Alaska Native villages is chronically under-funded while lack of appropriate training in all police forces – federal, state and tribal – also undermines survivors’ right to justice. Survivors of sexual violence are not guaranteed access to adequate and timely sexual assault forensic examinations – critical evidence in a prosecution. Often this is the result of the federal government’s severe under-funding of the Indian Health Service (IHS).
The federal government has interfered with the ability of tribal justice systems to respond to crimes of sexual violence by consistently under-funding tribal justice systems; limiting the custodial sentences that tribal courts can impose for any one offense, including rape, to one year and by prohibiting tribal courts from trying non-Indian suspects. At the same time, the majority of rape cases on tribal lands that are referred to the federal courts are reportedly never brought to trial.
The federal government must live up to its responsibility to assist tribal authorities and Indigenous women’s organizations to stop violence against Native American and Alaska Native women.
Treaties, the US Constitution and federal law affirm a unique political and legal relationship between tribal nations and the federal government. Federally recognized Indian tribes are sovereign under US law and maintain government to government relationships with each other and the US federal government. The federal government has a legal responsibility (federal trust responsibility) to ensure protection of the rights and wellbeing of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples and has recognized that this includes a responsibility to assist tribal governments in safeguarding the lives of Indian women.
Indigenous women all over the USA are working with determination and hope for a future where their dignity and security is respected. AI is calling on the US government to collaborate with tribal authorities and Native American and Alaska Native women to take concrete and comprehensive measures to stop sexual violence against Indigenous women and ensure that survivors have access to justice and redress.
Update on developments
Maze of Injustice, Amnesty International’s report on the failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the U.S., has generated an overwhelmingly positive response from the national and international communities.
The report has received extensive coverage through newspapers, blogs and congressional committee hearings. After reading the report, a blogger from Daily Kos created an online initiative that raised over $25,000 to keep the Pretty Bird Women House women’s shelter on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation operating. Senators Byron Dorgan (ND) and Tim Johnson (SD), key members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, have expressed interest in holding hearings on the topics covered in the report. Senator Dorgan will also look at how existing legislation on Indian health services could be amended to address some of the concerns raised in the report. Representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs indicated that they had been unaware of the extent of the problem with Indigenous women’s access to rape kits, and said that since the report’s release, they have been in touch with the Indian Health Service to try and work out solutions to improve access to sexual assault forensic examinations. The Bureau noted that the level of attention the report has brought to issues in Indian country was historic.
In addition to the interest AI’s report has generated among outside groups, we’re also urging you to send letters to President Bush calling for full funding of the Violence Against Women Act, and to the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services, calling for increased funding for the Indian Health Service.
Amnesty International will continue to keep the health and safety of Native American and Alaska Native women at the forefront of our agenda, and we urge you to do so as well.
You Can Help!
Visit the AIUSA website to learn more about sexual assault against Native American and Alaska Native women and to take action.
Amnesty International USA is the US section of AI - the international worldwide human rights organization with 1.8 million members in 100 countries. AIUSA has over 350,000 members organized into professional networks, and student and community chapters. You can find out which of our administrative regions you live in and contact our offices if you wish to join a local chapter visit www.amnestyusa.org. You can join the SVAW campaign, get our monthly women’s human rights online bulletin and join the Women's Human Rights Action Network by visiting www.amnestyusa.org/women. We look forward to working with you.