Addressing the Scourge of Rape on Tribal Lands

Imagine that you’ve been raped. There’s only one police officer on duty, and even if he has time to investigate, federal law prevents him from charging the suspect in court. At the hospital, the nurses aren’t trained to use a forensic rape kit to preserve evidence. Prosecutors can’t or won’t try the suspect, and he walks free.

For Native American and Alaska Native women in this country, this distressing scenario is an everyday occurrence. In fact, more than one in three Native women will be raped in their lifetime–86 percent of them by non-Native perpetrators. Indigenous women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the United States. Pursuing justice is virtually impossible, according to the findings in Amnesty International’s landmark report, Maze of Injustice: the Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA.

Thanks to the tireless work of Native women advocates, the commitment of key congressional leaders and Amnesty International’s research and persistent advocacy, President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law on July 29. This legislation offers a way out of the complex jurisdictional maze that has permitted violent crime against American Indians.

Specifically, the act will:

  • Clarify the responsibilities and increase coordination among federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies regarding crimes committed in tribal communities;
  • Begin to restore authority and resources to tribal governments to combat violence against Native American and Alaska Native women;
  • Ensure forensic exams are available at Indian Health Service facilities and require IHS officials to testify in criminal proceedings when they have collected forensic evidence or documented victims’ injuries;
  • Begin to ensure that federal prosecutors are held accountable for prosecuting crimes.

It was the U.S. government that created the complex maze of tribal, state, and federal jurisdictions that allows perpetrators to rape women in Indian country with impunity. Amnesty International highlighted the case of two Native American women who were gang-raped by three non-Native men in Oklahoma; however, because the women were forced to wear blindfolds, support workers were concerned that the women were unable to say whether the rapes took place on federal, state, or tribal land, information that determines which authorities would take charge of the case.

Further complicating matters is the lack of trained sexual assault nurse examiners at IHS facilities to provide forensic exams, a shortage that contributes to potential mishandling of critical evidence when rape kits are used. Native women may not even receive a forensic examination at all due to a lack of trained examiners, further decreasing the likelihood that their perpetrator will be brought to justice.

Demonstrating the consequences of tribal governments lacking authority and resources is another case of an Alaska Native man who became violent, beating his wife with a shotgun and barricading himself in a house with four children. As the village had no law enforcement, residents called state troopers, located 150 miles away, to report the violence. Troopers had to charter a plane to get there; in the four-plus hours it took to reach the village, the man had raped a 13-year-old Alaska Native girl on a bed with an infant crying beside her, and her five-year-old brother and seven-year-old cousin watching.

Even if authorities gather evidence and identify a perpetrator, the erosion of tribal authority means that Native perpetrators tried in tribal court can receive only one year per offense; non-Native perpetrators cannot be prosecuted by tribal authorities at all, effectively creating a legal vacuum on tribal lands. The legislation is the first step in returning authority to tribal governments to deal with cases of violent crime, increasing the sentencing to three years per offense, and it will hold federal authorities accountable for failure to prosecute.

While this new law is a great accomplishment, Congress now must follow through on its promise. Failure to do so will only prolong a legacy of violence and neglect toward Native peoples.

Rachel Ward was lead researcher and a co-author of Amnesty International’s Maze of Injustice report. www.amnestyusa.org