Obama Signs Act To Empower Native Americans to Fight Rape

One in three Native American women will be raped at least once in her lifetime. And that’s why President Obama’s signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act today is so vital. Tribes will now have the right–and the resources–to investigate and prosecute rapes perpetrated by non-Natives on tribal lands.

For 500 years, rape has been used as a tool of conquest and an act of war against Native women. It carries with it all of the perverted power of violence that every rape survivor endures, with the added yokes of colonialism and cultural annihilation.

Sadly, not much has changed.

One in three. At least once.

Think for a moment about the implications. We know that rape survivors are often reluctant to report the attack, for fear of not being believed; of being told that they “asked for it”; of being humiliated and shamed; of reprisals.

But in Indian Country, rape survivors bear additional burdens. They must report their crimes to federal law enforcement authorities, whom long and hard experience has told them to distrust. Cultural sensitivity is often nonexistent. Often, the law enforcement officers, investigators, prosecutors and health examiners are white men, and for many Native women cultural traditions may militate against talking to them about such intimate matters. So when you read that one in three Native women will be raped at least once in her lifetime, you can be assured that those numbers are underreported at even greater rates than in the general population.

Here’s a little context:

• Native Americans are more than twice as likely, compared to all other ethnic groups, to experience some form of sexual assault.

• 90 percent of Native women who report being raped also report being physically battered in other ways during the rape, compared to 74 percent of rape survivors in the population as a whole.

• 50 percent of Native women report experiencing other physical injuries in addition to the rape itself, compared to 30 percent in the population as a whole.

• 34 percent of Native women report that a weapon was used during the commission of the rape–a number more than three times that of the general population.

• While most rapes occur within racial groups, this is not true for Native women. More than 86 percent of the offenders are non-Indians, and more than 70 percent are white.

This last statistic matters a great deal.

Because until today, Native women raped by a non-Indian assailant had virtually no recourse. With rare exceptions, only federal law enforcement authorities have had jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute non-Native offenders on tribal lands. And historically, federal authorities have cared little about such cases: Federal authorities routinely decline to prosecute more than 50 percent of all violent crimes committed in Indian Country; the rate of declination is much higher for sexual assault cases.

Today that will change. The Tribal Law and Order Act will substantially expand tribal jurisdiction over non-Native offenders for crimes of sexual violence, and providing desperately needed resources to tribes to help them prosecute such cases. Introduced in 2009 in the House by Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD) and in the Senate by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), the legislation is a watershed in tribal law. Provisions include:

• Deputizes tribal police to arrest and prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes on tribal land

• Provides tribal police with access to National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and other federal databases containing criminal records and other information

• Requires the Department of Justice to maintain records on all declinations and to share that information, as well as any evidence, with tribal authorities

• Requires federal officials to turn over to tribal authorities any documents and testimony that may aid tribal court prosecutions

• Raises the maximum sentence that tribal courts can impose on an offender from one to three years

• Provides tribal police with targeted training in evidence collection and interviewing of sexual and domestic violence survivors

• Requires the Indian Health Service (IHS) to implement consistent protocols at all facilities for treating sexual assault survivors

• Reauthorizes and enhances programs to support tribal police, courts, and corrections programs

• Provides programs for at-risk young people on reservations.

Is it perfect? Of course not. But it’s an enormously important first step.

Today, we who have worked in our Native communities with survivors of sexual violence have reason to celebrate. Come and dance with us.

Photo from Flickr user zygzee under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. C Steven Hager says:

    As an attorney working with abused children in Indian country, this is long overdue. I believe that it could be argued that this is the most significant change in Indian law since the introduction of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, and it is long overdue. This is not perfect, but it is a tremendous improvement over the status quo.

    • I absolutely agree. Chi miigwech ("many thanks" in my language) for the work you do. Sadly, it's desperately needed, and I'm grateful for everyone who takes on these issues.

  2. A very relevant publication is available free: Child Sexual Abuse Explained (for Concerned Parents) http://www.abusewatch.net/CSA_brochure.php

  3. FYI, the over-quoted study that says 86 percent of all reservation rapes are done by non-Indian men is not accurrate. No federal cases were examined in this study, which was an eggregious error in light of reservation jurisdicitonal issues. Many major crimes committed on Indian reservations are prosecuted federally, as the state has no jurisdiction over an "Indian on Indian" crime that takes place on a reservation.

    A few years ago, then-SD Atty General Larry Long did his own study on SD reservation rapes, and found that most rapes are committed by Indian men; nearly 83 percent.

    The real problem is that few of these cases make it to the federal level; most are handled within the tribe, and the maximum punishment for a crime on an Indian reservation is one year of incarceration and/or a $1,000 fine. That's where the real story is.

    • A study by a SD Atty Gen. doesn't mean much. When about 85% of Native Americans live outside SD. And your "real problem" as you state it at the end, is NOT the real problem. The real problem is that non-natives can go onto a reservation, commit a crime and then leave, and then the natives have very little recourse in prosecuting that crime. The way you talk leaves all of us sounding like savages.

  4. Heya just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same results.

    • michelekort says:

      Thanks for the heads up! I removed the bad links–it looks like a page from Amnesty International was pulled off the web…

  5. manderin says:

    I’m sorry, but I think this article is being unfair to the law enforcement agencies around native reservations. First off, lets be very clear here- These native reserves are under TRIBAL LAWS and not regular laws and this is the choice of the tribes themselves. You can’t expect law enforcement to put much effort into crimes that occur outside their jurisdiction anymore than you can expect NY police to report to a crime scene in New Jersey. This is what it means to have a seperate land under separate law. Secondly, these areas with Tribal law have WORSE conditions for women than our laws do. Native American reserves hold their own trials for crimes commited in their land by their own people. What happens all the time is that women who are raped and beaten by their own men get a trial within the tribe who almost ALWAYS sides with the guy and gives him no punishment. THIS is why rape is so prevalent on their land. Not because of the nation’s law enforcement. Not too long ago there was a case of a man who regularly beat his wife. One day this guy got so angry at her he decided to get back at her by killing their two small children and telling her that was his plan minutes before he did it. He was brought to trial by the Native Tribe and the REsult? NOT GUILTY for ANYTHING. They said they personally knew him as a nice guy and was sure that the 2 murders of the children were an accident. They ignored the bruises all over the wife’s body and ignored the testimony of neighbors who heard her screaming “He’s saying he’s going to kill my babies!” on the night of the murders. This article completely puts the blame on our law enforcers when it is these Tribes that create the inequality that women within them endure.

  6. Manderin is absolutely right. I am a 34 year old beautiful indian woman who fled from her tribe in Maine. My father was sexually assaulting me and my mother works in the Tribal Court and has been covering up the abuse that he has been bestowing on me and my children. His brother was also convicted off reservation of raping a child as well. When I told the tribal police, they ignored me as well as my mother that worked closely with the police tells them that I am medically challenged and making it allup and to ignore me. The Police Cheif refuses to return my calls even to this day. I went to the Cheif and counsel and they want to do is live in denial about any of this going on. My younger sisters boyfriend molested my daughter as well and he is still living there on the reservation. My foster sister just moved there as well, and she just lost all 8 of her children due to her husband molesting them. She is still with her husband living next door to my mother. My mother has my children and will not give them back. My father lives across the street from her, my sisters boyfriend visits my mother, and my foster sisters husband is visiting there as well. And I can’t find anyone off the reservation to help me. I desperately miss my children and I want them back home with me in South Carolina. I have written a numerous amount of letters but unfortunately all of them no response. Sexual preditors all around my kids and I cannot help them. Please help…somebody. This is real. my email address is pocahontis1900@yahoo.com

  7. Wanted to drop a remark and let you know your Rss feed isnt working today. I tried including it to my Google reader account and got nothing.

  8. Strange that one the one hand Obama signs a law doing something (however little) against rape, yet on the other hand has kids raped at airports (and now train stations and bus stations) every day. He’s doing this for show – don’t think for a minute that he cares about victims. He clearly LOVES seeing them abused.

  9. Pamela says:

    Well, I’m Choctaw, and don’t live on the reservation because I was born and raised in the suburbs of a West Coast city, but in my experience it is almost never that I get treated like a walking female organ with no brain (and this is after I graduated from college prep high school, Yale and San Francisco State and am enrolled at Johns Hopkins) by my fellow Natives. It is always from men of other races, and not usually white men either. It’s usually black and Hispanic men who treat me like I look like I’m “all that” and with no brains and thus no need on their part to treat me like a human being. When I was 23 and trying to substitute teach, I was assaulted by one of my students. This took away my will to continue on to become a teacher, if those whom I was trying to teach math or science to, weren’t looking at me as the TEACHER but “that” kind of person. It has been hard these past 20 years since then because I have a hard time getting teaching jobs in areas where the kids aren’t sexually assaulting their teachers.

    My point is that it’s not because we as Native Americans are “all that.” It’s because we have brown skin. When I look at myself in the mirror I actually think “yuck.” I’m no Jennifer Lopez by a long shot. When men of all races look at us they see only skin color and not intelligence, education, or anything they’d consider “human” enough to justify treating us like human beings and not walking sex organs. It’s because they associate Natives, and brown skin, with sex, period. They say rape isn’t about sex, but that sure as hell is what it FEELS like they’re using against us. Don’t tell me that – they’re not sticking anything in our EARS for God’s sake. And a lot of times while they’re doing it they’re telling us they’re purposely trying to get us pregnant against our wills. So no one tell me it’s not about sex – it IS a forced sex act.

    • Hey..well said. Thanks for being careful to not generalize. I`m so sorry for what you`ve been through. On one hand, I understand fully what you feel. On the other, I just wish I could find a way to defend my white family. Sadly, we`re raised to “belong” to a man; to have our sexuality “belong” to a husband. It`s not our own to give. When we`re alone, we feel more vulnerable. …but white men aren`t total pigs. They`re trapped too and many work to think it through also. Many feel trapped by our expectation of supporting them financially. Anyway, little is perfect & there`s ugliness in every culture.


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