We’re Failing at Talking About Sexual Assault in the US If We Ignore Native Women

A person with long hair and a serious expression.

A person with long hair and a serious expression.

Originally published at The Establishment and republished here with permission.

(Content Warning: police brutality, genocide, sexual and physical violence)

This fall, the leaders and populace of America engaged in a long overdue dialogue about sexual assault, one that has crossed political party lines. The discourse was largely kicked off when President-Elect Donald Trump sparked outrage with the leak of a 2005 video, capturing his describing in graphic detail how he sexually assaulted a white, straight, married woman.

This began not only a decline in the polls, but also furthered the national conversation about what constitutes rape and how it impacts the lives of (some) women. However, the very women that suffer the most violence at the hands of men – Native women – were once again left out of this conversation.

Both liberals and conservatives have remained virtually silent on the national stage in the face of the terrifyingly high rates of rape, sex trafficking, disappearance, and murder of Native and Indigenous women.

They have remained silent, including President Obama and democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, while Native girls and women are being attacked by dogs, mace, paramilitary law enforcement, and the National Guard at Standing Rock. They remained silent while Trump was denigrating all Native girls and women by using such slurs as “Pocahont*s” and“squaw”.

Only when those in power could envision their mothers, wives, daughters, or themselves being Trump’s victim had he gone too far. Only when they could envision a woman of similar to their own class being a victim did they care about sexual assault.

Prior to Trump’s video being released, the Democratic Party, and many of its members, had addressed sexual assault on college campuses. In June, Vice President Joe Biden wrote a letter to the survivor of rape by Brock Turner. In this letter, he expressed his support for her, but also his rage towards a system that failed her:

I do not know your name – but I know that a lot of people failed you that terrible January night and in the months that followed…  You were failed by a culture on our college campuses where one in five women is sexually assaulted – year after year after year… The statistics on college sexual assault haven’t gone down in the past two decades. It’s obscene, and it’s a failure that lies at all our feet.

If one in five rape victims is too many for Vice President Biden, then why is more than one in two rape victims not worthy of his attention, or of the attention of President Obama or Michelle Obama?

Native women suffer the highest rates of violence of any racial group in the US.

According to the National Institute of Justice’s findings from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, more than one in three (39.8%) American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence in the last year – and more than four in five (84.3%) have experienced violence in their lifetime. About 56.1% of Native women have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime.

While college sexual assault is an important issue, it doesn’t come close to occurring at the same rates as violence on reservations, nor is it a primary Native community concern. Native women rarely make it to college. Natives’ rates of higher education are the lowest in the US – only 18.5% have a Bachelor’s degree. Far too many Native women are simply trying to make it through each day alive.

So why the silence from both all sides? Put bluntly: It’s to their benefit to keep Native women quietly suffering. As the Cheyenne proverb says, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.”

Native women have always led the fight against the US government for the rights of Native people, but the government has done its best to keep us in our place. It’s estimated that in the 1970s, anywhere from 25–50% of Native women between the ages of 15–44 were forcibly sterilized by the US government-operated and -funded Indian Health Services.

This was a federally-funded campaign of genocide in order to lower the numbers of Native people to make the theft of Native lands and resources easier. The US government has always had a stake in seeing Native women abused and dead.

Colonialism plays an even deeper role in the political parties’ silence than meets the eye. Most sexual assault in the US is intraracial (that is, the predator and the victim are the same race). Among non-Latinx white women, 91% of reported assaults have been intraracial.

Conversely, according to the National Congress of American Indians, “victimizations against American Indian and Alaska Native women were more likely to be interracial” – perpetrated by non-Native people.

The high numbers for interracial attacks are similar for every type of violence that Indigenous women in the US face: domestic violence, sex trafficking, stalking, and murder. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average. (It’s important to note that these statistics only reflect American Indian and Alaskan Native women, which does not include Native Hawaiians, who have their own unique struggles as a result of colonialism.)

Our attackers are not only predominately non-Native men; they are specifically usually white men, and they’re often brought onto our lands because of resource extraction that we had no say in. This can be seen right now in Standing Rock due to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Since the Sacred Stone Camp was founded in July to protect Standing Rock’s water, there has been an endless stream of non-Native men attacking Native girls and women. They’ve used mace, dogs, batons, brutal force, intimidation, and forced strip searches. They’re outfitted with semi-automatic weapons, riot gear, and military-style vehicles with Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs). Drones have shot rubber bullets at them.

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple activated the National Guard on September 8th . Law enforcement from outside North Dakota have been sent to help preserve the peace.” This is what the US government is doing to peaceful Native Water Protectors who are simply trying to keep resource extraction off their lands.

When I spoke with Sophia Marjanovic, Ph.D., of the Fort Peck Oglala Lakota and Sante Ysabell Ipai, regarding resource extraction and violence on her tribal lands, she said that she grew up “living in a state of terror.”

Due to the Homestead Act, the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana has non-Native people living on their land. “We’ve always had white people who’ve attacked us, who’ve raped us, who’ve kidnapped us, beat us up,” Marjanovic said.

Williston, North Dakota, just 85 miles from the Fort Peck Reservation, has experienced an oil boom that has prompted an explosion in violence against women in the region.

According to a study looking at the Bakken oil region, including area reservations, there was a 72% rise in dating violence and 47% rise in domestic violence from 2008 to 2012. The violence rates became so high that the FBI opened an office in Williston.

According to Marjanovic, the men from the oil “man camps” were living in their hotels and campgrounds. When she’d go to the local Wal-Mart with her son, the men would harass her. “It’s not appropriate that we’re treated like trash and disposable in every single possible way,” she says. “Not only are our lands… dumped on, but our bodies are being treated as something that you dump on.”

The violence that Native women endure every day is obscene, and it’s a failure that rests on the shoulders of every single person who lives in the US. We have been failed by a culture of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and sexism.

When will the sexual assaults of Native women finally matter enough to garner the applause of an Oscar audience or the outrage of members of the GOP? When will the First Lady become so incensed by the daily degradation and exploitation we suffer that she addresses the nation on our behalf?

Will it take the last oil field being fracked dry? Will it take us bleaching our skin and hair, changing our Native names, furthering our genocide so we may become more Americanized?

Biden wrote in his letter that he didn’t know Brock Turner’s victim’s name, but he knew the statistics for rape of women such as herself. Mr. Vice President, you now know the statistics for Native women – and I’ll tell you my name.

I’m Jen Deerinwater. I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and I’m a survivor of multiple rapes, stalking, and domestic violence.

So where’s my letter?

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Jen Deerinwater is a classically trained vocalist vagabond with a love for books, well-made martinis, and antique maps. She has several degrees from overpriced universities, with the student loan debt to prove it. She is an out and proud bisexual, hard femme, disabled, and Tsalagi – a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. After several years spent in the trenches of US electoral and issue-based campaigns, you can now find her stirring the pot of radical discourse online.