“America’s Oldest Tradition: How the Government and Culture of the United States Allows for the Systematic Rape of Native American Women,” Kristin Stratman (2016) — Inquiry 3

Inquiry 3 Process Memo:

I decided to write my Inquiry 3 paper on the proliferation of sexual assaults against Native American women because it is such an important topic that, even though it is so common a practice in America, it receives very little coverage in the media. In fact, I first heard about it last year when my sister told me about the trend of white men raping Native American women on reservations because it was almost impossible for them to face a punishment. The fact that something like this was happening to a group that has already faced an eternity’s worth of persecution and atrocities in modern day America enraged me. The fact that I had never heard any word that this was occurring enraged me even more. So, I decided that choosing it as my topic for inquiry 3 would provide me with the opportunity to educate myself more on the topic.

Something that surprised me in writing on this topic was that there was such an abundance of sources published on it, providing hard evidence of the difference in the treatment of Native American rape victims versus victims of other races. However, I am not surprised that I had not previously heard about it in school or in the news because of the bad light it puts the U.S. Government under.


America’s Oldest Tradition: How the Government and Culture of the United States Allows for the Systematic Rape of Native American Women

Thanksgiving is approaching. With it comes the incredibly wholesome images of the American Indians and Pilgrims of lore coming together for a shared and holy meal. Breaking bread and prospering equally from the traditionally and expertly cultivated land of the Natives. However, we well know that this idyllic representation of the cooperation between whites and Indians is dead wrong, and in truth white men have been grossly taking advantage of Natives since day one, and undermining Native needs in favor of their own. For instance, in an excerpt from Christopher Columbus’s diary he writes, “These people are very unskilled in arms… with 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.” Unfortunately, this disgusting tradition that he spurred in 1492 of mistreating and taking advantage of Native Americans has become more entrenched and inflamed in American culture than the tradition of Turkey day, and today it is more present than ever in the form of sexual assault. Since the beginning of the practice of Spanish colonists prostituting Native women to satisfy the supply of womanless colonists, Native American women have been a major target of sexual violence. Even in today’s world, the safety of Native American women is systematically undermined in favor of the security and dominance of white European descendants in America.

The truths behind colonization and rape are in fact tied together so strongly that they are inseparable. They both are motivated by the same desires on the part of the perpetrator. For instance, Sarah Deer writes in her essay, “Sexual assault mimics the worst traits of colonization in its attack on the body, invasion of physical boundaries, and disregard for humanity.” A survivor of sexual assault often experiences similar symptoms to a victim of colonialization, such as “self-blame, loss of identity, and long-term depression and despair.” This issue is so out of control that in this decade it is estimated that today over a third of Native American women will experience rape during their lifetime. This statistic is ridiculously high compared to the proportion of 18 percent of white women and 19 percent of African American women who will experience rape or sexual assault at some point in their lifetimes (Bachman). This imbalance is also evident in that in the state of South Dakota, Native Americans account for 40 percent of the victims of sexual assault, yet they only make up 10 percent of the population, and in Alaska, Natives account for 15 percent of the population but play victim to 61 percent of the sexual assaults in the state (Williams).

This trend of sexually assaulting Native American women did not end with the United States’ Government banishing them to reservations. Rather, this banishment reinforced the ability to rape with impunity in the differences in how reservations are governed. For instance, the adjudication of the law in Indian Reservations is in many cases placed in the hand of tribal courts. However, it is extremely rare for a tribal court to take on a case without a Native American offender, no matter what the crime. This comes from a law that originated from the ruling in the 1978 Oliphant versus Suquamish case in which it was decided that tribal courts do not have jurisdiction over cases involving non-Indians. Since over 85 percent of the rapes and sexual assaults on Native American women are perpetrated by non-Natives, the jurisdiction for trying these crimes is virtually non-existent unless the case is brought to federal court (Cooper). However, when addressing crimes against Native Americans in a federal court, there are plenty of rules regarding the prosecution of these crimes that must be addressed, regarding the heritage of both the defendant and the victim, and whether or not the attack took place on reservation territory. These rules greatly diminish the federal court’s ability to take on cases regarding crimes against American Indians. Cooper writes, “The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs reported that between 2004 and 2007, federal prosecutors declined to prosecute 72 percent of child sexual crimes and 75 percent of adult rape cases referred from Indian Country.” This statistic displays the grossly negligent abilities of the federal court in response to sexual assault cases. These laws that undermine the protection of Native American women under federal law have evolved from older more blatantly racialized versions of these laws in the United States history. For instance, Deer writes, “in the eyes of the law, only white women could be raped. Moreover, Native women were not even allowed to testify in many Anglo courts until the late nineteenth century” (Deer). Even then, the sentencing authority of the tribal courts is extremely limited. The highest punishment they can impose on an offender is a year in prison or a $5,000 fine (Cooper). The segregative nature of the tribal and federal court systems has trickled down from these outdated racially driven viewpoints, thus allowing for the vastly inadequate realm of the judicial power over dangerous sexual offenders.

Another factor contributing to the capability of men to rape or sexually assault Native American women with impunity is the lack of resources that many Native Americans tribes have, both locational and otherwise. For instance, one of the main reasons that it is so difficult for cases of violence against Native American women to be tried is that the assets available on many Indian reservations are so limited. For instance, “Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in February 2009 that the Wind River Reservation in his state is nearly the size of Connecticut but has no more than two full-time police officers on 24-hour duty” (Cooper). Instances such as this are disgraceful in the blatant disregard they show for the safety of Native Americans.

Native American women are also plagued by the lack of infrastructure in the reservations. It is estimated that one-third of all Alaskan Native reservations do not even have a road, and therefore it is much more difficult for them to find help after experiencing sexual assault. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaskan senator writes, “When a woman or child is a victim of domestic violence, there is nowhere to go. Your abuser is not only known to you, but to the whole community. It is just very, very difficult,” (Cooper). This quotation describes the length to which the pain of victimization extends for the victim, in that in these small tight-knit villages, once the fact of an assault is known to the community, it is never forgotten.

This lack of resources is also noticeable in the sparsity of rape kits in the reservations, which are essential in the collection of evidence against the attacker. Cooper writes,

Beginning in 2003, the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Native Women and others began campaigning for the Indian Health Service (IHS) to follow standardized sexual assault policies and protocols, or SAPPs. The Violence Against Women Act of 2005 finally addressed some of their concerns, but the programs remained unfunded and unimplemented.

The lack of active response to the pleas of those campaigning for the health and protection of Native American women is evidence of how low of a priority their safety is to the United States government.

This tradition has plagued the American Indian population since the first European explorers arrived on America’s shores. How can a trend that is so deeply ingrained in American history finally be ended? There are a number of solutions being offered in response to this question. For instance, the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 is a bill introduced to expand the sentencing abilities of tribal courts, allow tribal prosecutors to access of federal crime databases, and would increase the amount of training law enforcement officers would receive in regards to sexual assault cases (Cooper). However this bill still does not address the fact that the tribal courts have no jurisdiction over non-Native offenders, which still account for the majority of these crimes committed. A better solution may be to grant the tribal courts the ability to try offenders of crimes that take place within reservation limits regardless of their heritage as they are more likely to pay specialized attention to the cases, and to provide the reservation officers with more government funding to put towards both expanding their task force and increasing their access to the resources required in the collection of evidence against sexual offenders.

The chilling history of the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers is well known to the population of the United States today, with its horrors stories of smallpox blankets, genocide, and banishment to reservations. However, awareness of the atrocities being committed against Native American women today is not widespread, and therefore very little is being done to protect them or spur reparative actions for the crimes committed in the past. There is plenty of evidence of the difference in how Native American women are protected by the United States government versus their white counterparts regarding their high rape stats and the inaccessibility to resources to protect them or prosecute the offenders against them. The legislative attempts to quell this sickening tradition are incomprehensive and in end, due to the lack of understanding of this subject, remain underfunded. Therefore it is of the greatest importance to raise awareness of the current circumstances of Native women to motivate the public enough to take action. It is clear that without the public’s awareness or subsequent outrage, the United States government will continue sweeping these barbarities against Native Americans under the rug, as they have been doing for centuries.





Cooper, Cynthia L. “Crisis Situation for Native American Women in a Broken Legal

System.” Perspectives: A Magazine For & About Women Lawyers 18.2 (2009): 10-14. Academic Search Complete. 13 Oct. 2015. Web.

Deer, Sarah. “Decolonizing Rape Law: A Native Feminist Synthesis of Safety and

Sovereignty.” Wicazo Sa Review 24.2 (2009): 149-167. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Owens J. “Historic” in a Bad Way: How the Tribal Law and Order Act Continues the American

Tradition of Providing Inadequate Protection to American Indian and Alaska Native Rape Victims. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology [serial online]. Spring 2012 2012;102(2):497-524. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 14, 2015.

Williams, Timothy, and Jonathan Weisman. “For Native American Women, Scourge of Rape,

Rare Justice.” New York Times 23 May 2012: 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.