Native Issues in the Halls of Government

'A plague of sexual violence' I would like to dedicate this column to the memory of my mother, Anna Waller Specktor, who journeyed on to the next world on Jan. 21. While my mom was in United Hospital last month, I happened to read the story titled "Tiny Little Laws," by Kathy Dobie, in the Feb. 2011 edition of Harper's Magazine. The subtitle of the story is "A plague of violence in Indian country." It’s a shocking report about rape and sexual molestation on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which covers an area the size of the state of Connecticut, mostly in South Dakota and stretching up into North Dakota.

The author writes: "For decades the people of Standing Rock have been plagued by sexual violence, inadequate police protection, and an ineffectual legal system that allows rapists and child molesters to go unpunished, free to commit the same crimes again and again. Complain as they might – and many women"s advocates, social workers, and ordinary citizens have complained – no one listened until Amnesty International… published a report in 2007 titled "Maze of Injustice: the failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA." The report was issued after two years of research in Oklahoma, Alaska, and on the Standing Rock Reservation. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, almost two thirds of Native American and native Alaskan women have been physically assaulted, most often by an intimate partner. They are nearly three times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other American women, and the assaults are more violent, more likely to require medical care."

The lengthy article by Dobie documents the lawlessness on the Standing Rock reservation, where women (and men who were molested as children) mainly have no hope that perpetrators of sex crimes will be prosecuted. The tribal police "do nothing," according to Beth Melancon, a social worker at the Abused Adult Resource Center (AARC) in Bismarck, No. Dakota. She tells the writer: "So many times, [the report of a sex crime] stops at the tribal level and it is forgotten about. They keep it under wraps." Melancon says that 75 percent of rape and molestation incidents do not go beyond the tribal police. And if the BIA police do not pass on the report of a major crime, then the FBI does nothing.

Although the Harper"s story seems to be well-documented, I called Sarah Deer, an assistant professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, to get her opinion. Deer, a member of the Muscogee Nation, has focused her legal work on violent crime on Indian reservations. She was a writer of Amnesty International"s "Maze of Injustice" report.

"I think it"s a good article," Deer responded, regarding "Tiny Little Laws." "It reflects what I"ve heard and the work that I"ve done. It"s consistent with all of that."

As far as federal action to remediate the horrific problem of rape and sexual molestation on the rez, Deer pointed out that Congress passed the Tribal Law and Order Act last July, in response to the Amnesty International report and other publicity. The new law "doesn"t resolve even half of the issue, but it"s a step in the right direction." She said that there has been no funding for increased law enforcement resources under the Tribal Law and Order Act.

In response to my question, Deer said that she has been happy with Sen. Al Franken, who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He has been listening to the concerns of Native women, and has "voiced his support and commitment to the issue," according to Deer.

At the end of our conversation, Deer emphasized that violence against Indian women is not a new issue. "To present it as something that hasn"t been going on for a really long time is a mistake," she said. "Most of the Native women who have been living in the reservation communities will tell you that this has been going on for over a hundred years…. If we treat it like a new problem, our solutions might not… really get at the heart of the problem."

If readers are interested in learning more about this issue, Sarah Deer will be one of the participants in a symposium, "Gender-Based Violence and Genocide: Congo, Native Americans, and Ivory Coast," which will take place 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12 at William Mitchell College of Law, 875 Summit Ave., St. Paul.

Previous articleAttention!
Next articleFond du Lac Follies