VAWA's Loudest Advocates Further Silence Native Women

Timothy Aqukkasuk Argetsinger

Many federally recognized tribes are celebrating the reauthorization of VAWA, which contains key provisions that authorize tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians in sexual assault and domestic violence cases on reservation. For too long, tribal courts in the Lower 48 have lacked the ability to prosecute non-Indians, and this is a promising step in the right direction.

Some tribes will undoubtedly benefit from expanded jurisdiction in this area, yet the nature of sexual assault and domestic violence in reservation communities has been distorted by many of VAWA’s fiercest advocates. These advocates, who include Indian legal scholars, novelists and artists, have framed the issue as one in which non-Natives – acting with impunity in a jurisdictional vacuum – are almost solely responsible for violence against Indian women.

Yet those of us who are from or have spent significant time in Alaska Native or reservation communities know that the opposite is true: all too often, Native men are responsible for the bulk of violence against Native women in our communities.  

In the run up to and since the passage of VAWA, countless news articles report a disturbing yet sloppily cited statistic: that in more than 86 percent of reported sexual assault and domestic violence cases on reservation, non-Indian men are the perpetrators. In her 2005 op-ed for this newspaper, prominent Indian activist Suzan Harjo used this statistic to paint a picture of Indian women on reservations being preyed upon by non-Indian men. Indian legal scholar N. Bruce Duthu and novelist Louise Erdrich did the same in their 2008 and 2013 op-eds for the New York Times.

The "more than 80 percent" statistic cited by Harjo, Duthu and Erdrich, and repeated in the same fashion by news media, comes from a December 2004 report published by the Department of Justice called American Indians and Crime. In the report, sexual assault data are published from a crime survey taken telephonically by self-identifying American Indian men and women dispersed throughout the U.S. Survivors of sexual assault who took the survey said that the perpetrator was non-Indian in 86 percent of cases, with the remaining 14 percent either American Indian or Asian.

Contrary to the way this statistic is often cited, it is not a figure representative of sexual assault in reservation communities. This detail matters because most Indians live off reserve, mainly in urban parts of the country.

The statistic gained widespread attention and began to be sweepingly applied to all reservation communities after it was cited in Amnesty International's high-profile 2007 report Maze of Injustice, even though both reports make it explicitly clear that there is very little reservation specific data on sexual assault and domestic violence.

This distortion of who perpetrates sexual assault and domestic violence in Native communities needs to end because it downplays the varied stories of survivors by placing responsibility almost solely on non-Natives. This is especially harmful in a society in which survivors already experience shame, victim blaming, and bullying.

As an indirect result of the way sexual assault has been presented, unrealistic expectations now swirl around the ability of VAWA's tribal jurisdiction provisions to end violence against Indian women on reserve, when in reality many tribes fail to adequately investigate, try and prosecute Indian perpetrators.

For instance, on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, there is a lack of law enforcement capacity at multiple levels, inadequate resources, and a pervasive rape culture in which survivors of assault often experience victim blaming, bullying, intimidation and apathy – issues that also characterize national attitudes toward sexual assault and women in general. Harper’s magazine published an article in 2011 (“Tiny Little Laws”) showing that sexual assault on Stand Rocking is often tied up in petty tribal politics:

“On Standing Rock, family loyalty and family vengeance can affect the course of justice. Large families and people who have relatives on the tribal council or in the police department or the courts have power on the reservation. And as in any small town, everybody knows everybody else. So who can you confide in, who can you trust? Women are reluctant even to seek counselling at the IHS hospital because they’re afraid people will find out. Victims of childhood molestation often live for decades in silence. These issues, unfortunately, are not unique to Standing Rock.”

Examples from Pine Ridge and Rosebud tell a similar story.

When well-meaning advocates and news media distort the "more than 80 percent" statistic by applying it to all reservation communities, they are suggesting that reducing sexual assault and domestic violence on reservation hinges on tribes' ability to prosecute non-Natives. In the process, they inadvertently help to preserve rape culture and protect Native rapists and batterers by fostering a myth: non-Native men rape and batter but Native men don't. They also very optimistically suggest that tribal courts are adequately handling Native on Native sexual assault and domestic violence cases and are equipped to investigate, try and prosecute non-Native perpetrators, when in reality many tribes struggle to deliver justice to their own members. They ignore realities on reservations like Standing Rock and Rosebud in favor of a Native vs. non-Native narrative that conveniently allows us to avoid taking accountability.

Instead of perpetuating the more than 80% statistic, we need to have an honest conversation in our community about how violence against Native women too often begins and ends with Native men. This includes identifying the action steps needed to change the way we think about and treat women, in addition to the systemic legal, jurisdictional and societal challenges that contribute to a flourishing rape culture on reservation and in the wider American society.

At the end of the day, the only way to prevent rape and domestic violence is to teach men not to rape and batter women. It's time to end this invented Native vs. non-Native narrative and take a good look in the mirror. Our ancestors were braver than this.

Timothy Aqukkasuk Argetsinger (Iñupiaq) has worked extensively for Alaska Native and Canadian Inuit advocacy organizations on social and economic issues. He is a blogger at AlaskaIndigenous.wordpress.com. He is from Anchorage.

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sarahdeer's picture
While there are some excellent points here about holding our Native men accountable, I think it is unfair to portray advocates who have worked for an Oliphant fix as "preserving rape culture." Most of the work being done in many tribal communities to address domestic violence and sexual assault does not need the blessing of the federal government, therefore we may not hear about it as much in the national media. The national focus on non-Native perpetrators has been necessary as part of an overall decolonizing efforts to restore tribal jurisdiction, so tribal people can hold all offenders accountable in tribal courts. Because we don't have data for each individual nation, the percentage of non-Native perpetrators may vary from community to community. However, whether a tribal nation is dealing with 1% non-Native offenders or 100% non-Native offenders, as sovereign nations they should be available to take action in all cases. The effort to correct Oliphant is something that many advocates and tribal leaders have identified as a national priority since 1978. Raising awareness about Native perpetrators and working for restored jurisdiction are not mutually exclusive. While the national media may be focused on non-Native perpetrators, I can guarantee that many advocates are working furiously at the local level to hold Native men accountable as well.
Jim Dumas's picture
I for one, believe that it doesn't really matter if crimes are committed by Native or Non Native men, both are guilty. Women, whether on the res or Main Street U.S.A., should have the respect due them...this includes the laws. It seems that the GOP has taken it upon itself, to stack the law in the favor of the perp, and laying the blame on the women of this country. I believe that if the law isn't going to do what it's suppose to due and protect us...then we should do it ourselves.
Jim Dumas
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous's picture
Is there ever any social progress in the absence of truth?
Anonymous's picture
Is there ever any social progress in the absence of truth?
Anonymous's picture
In urban centers including Anchorage, most Native women are raped by non-Native men. Native men rape and often believe that if the girl/woman had alcohol, its okay. Parents, families, pastors, schools, etc. need to start teaching boys, teens, and men that sex without consent is rape, and if she is drunk or passed out, that is not consent. I don't know how this young man came to his conclusions that the strongest advocates further silence Native women. Those "loudest" advocates have been fighting this issue long before the press, he or many passing judgement, including NARF were involved. Hats off to them.
redwood's picture
You said a mouthful, Tim! I'm glad that VAWA passed, but since California is a P.L. 280 state, being able to prosecute non-Indians isn't really the issue here, before or after VAWA. What IS the issue is that there seems to be a victim mentality that resists turning in perpetrators of rape, physical violence, or incest, because that would mean letting the "outside world" know about the dirty little secrets that go on daily on our reservations. It isn't just rape and domestic violence against women... It is the molestation, rape and incest towards CHILDREN that is the most shocking. I know of grandmothers who, although they love their grandchildren dearly... they refuse to turn in their adult children who regularly molest those same grandchildren. I've tried to understand... perhaps their thinking is because the same thing happened to them as a child, that it is just "how life goes..." I see generation after generation burying their heads in the sand, and no one stands up and says ENOUGH!
Anonymous's picture
I agree...the abuse Native men perpetrate on Native women must not be overlooked. It is a serious problem in Native communities.
canucee's picture
Titling this article something to the effect of "Statistic Serves to Further Denial of Responsibility by Native Perpetrators," or something that keeps the onus on offenders, which is what the 80+% statistic pertains to, would have made this otherwise credible piece more readable. Something other than implying that women are being silenced or that VAWA advocates cause this supposed silence would have been better. Much of what the author states has merit, but the headline / title is more than misleading, it's wrong.
Anonymous's picture
Bravo--it's time the emphasis changed from the citing of incomplete and distorted Department of Justice statistics to something resembling reality. A couple of other recent ICTMN columns have also focused the light of truth where it belongs. It's great that tribal courts can now prosecute non-Natives-that's a big win and a great first step. But maybe now rapes and other sexual assaults by Indian men can be "de-normalized" and some kind of sanity restored in the lives of women and children in remote areas--and elsewhere.