Month: July, 2012

Stories of Pain and Perseverance: Rape on the Reservation

Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Written by Jan Turner Tuesday, July 24 2012 

Deborah Parker, vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes, testifies at a Senate press conference with Sen. Patty Murray (left) and Sen. Barbara Boxer.

"I walked down the hall and thought, `Oh my God, it has to be me. It has to be my story.'" 

And that is how Deborah Parker came to tell her personal story of sexual assault to the world. A long-time activist in the fight to protect Native women, Parker had just visited the office of Sen. Patty Murray where she had been told that the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2012 (known as VAWA), which was on the Senate floor, would probably fail because it "lacked a face." 

"Something in me just dropped. I felt injured," says Parker, who is an enrolled member of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington State and a tribal vice chair as of last March. Parker says that she couldn't believe that the many letters from Native women that she had forwarded to Murray weren't enough. 

The letters were "filled with the most horrific stories I had ever heard," explains Parker. 

It was in the hallway outside of Murray's office that Parker had a revelation: She realized that she had to set aside her fear and become "the face" and the voice for the issue of Native women and rape. It was not an easy decision. Parker says that only the knowledge that more Native women would suffer and die could compel her to tell her story – actually three stories – that she had never told publicly before. 

Within minutes, Parker explained her revelation to Murray, prompting the senator to exclaim, "You're it! You're it!" Murray scheduled a Senate press conference for the next morning. Parker was told that she was the first tribal leader to testify at such a gathering. 

A Toddler Raped, a Woman Hung in a Tree 

"I am a Native American statistic," Parker told the Senate. "I am a survivor of sexual and physical violence." Parker then delivered a firsthand account of her own abuse and the importance of VAWA. She told how she was first raped in the 1970s as a toddler by a man who was never convicted. "I was as big as a sofa cushion, a two-and-a-half foot red velvet sofa cushion, which is where he raped me," she recounted. 

The next story was of witnessing the rape of her aunt by four men who had followed her home to attack her. "I couldn't help my auntie," she said, "I could only hear her cries." The third story told of the death of one of what Parker calls "my girls." The young woman died after being hung in a tree by her partner. 

The Senate passed VAWA 68-31 the next day. 

One in Three Native Women Experience Sexual Violence 

The House, however, later removed the Senate version's expansion of tribal courts' power to prosecute non-Natives suspected of sexually assaulting Indian women. The two houses are now seeking a compromise. In the real world, however, tribal courts continue to abide by sentencing limits of one year's imprisonment or a $5,000 fine. 

On the country's 310 Indian reservations, more than one in three Native women have experienced rape or attempted rape, according to the Justice Department. The murder rate for Native women is 10 times the national average. And nowhere is more dangerous than the isolated tribal communities of Alaska, where the rate of sexual violence is 12 times the national average. 

While the figure is under dispute, the Justice Department also maintains that 86 percent of rapes of Indian women are committed by non-Indians. 

Sixty-five Percent of Reported Rapes are not Prosecuted 

Data for 2011 show that the federal government, which has jurisdiction over the most serious crimes in Indian country, did not pursue rape charges 65 percent of the time and rejected 61 percent of child sexual abuse cases. Reasons cited in news reports include inadequate staff power, evidence that is misplaced or destroyed, and lack of cooperation between federal and tribal law enforcement. 

In addition, the Indian Health Service has few hospitals that treat rape cases, and those facilities that do deal with rape suffer from a dearth of trained personnel to gather evidence. Other factors include family breakdown, alcohol and drug abuse, and issues of "blood" that cast confusion on who is an Indian and who is not, affecting enforcement and jurisdiction. 

In truth, most rapes are not reported at all, because of the dismal track record for prosecutions as well as victims' fear that they will be ostracized by family and tribal members. Says Parker, "No one wants tell on their uncle, their father, their cousin." 

A "Perfect Storm" of Contributing Factors 

Sarah Deer

The many factors feeding into the rape of Native women create a "perfect storm" says Sarah Deer, a faculty member at William Mitchell College of Law. An enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, Deer joined President Obama for the signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 at the White House. 

Deer believes that the biggest contributor to sexual violence and lack of prosecution is not on media's list of legal and social factors. 

"The biggest cause is historical indifference," says Deer. "(Rape) is now called an `epidemic,' but it has been going on for at least a century. It has become normalized…There is a system in Indian country where rapists can rape with impunity." 

Deer, who wrote Amnesty International's groundbreaking report, "Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence", says that modern-day issues like methamphetamine and alcohol abuse contribute to the tragic situation, but they don't cause it. 

"There are contemporary issues, but I don't know that they are particularly sinister. Rape comes from a sinister perspective on women." 

The Cries of Boarding School Students Still Echo 

Another source of reservation violence, Parker says, was Europeans' forced assimilation of Native peoples, a kind of systematic soul-killing designed to permanently erase Indian culture. Under federal Indian policy, Native children in the 1880s through the early 1900s were removed from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were subjected to overcrowding, disease, overwork and painful punishments for speaking their own language. Both federal facilities and missionary schools were in operation. 

"At Tulalip they had an electric chair for disciplining students," says Parker. In addition, sexual assault by priests and nuns on their unprotected, captive students left deep scars. Since victims of sexual assault who don't get help can become perpetrators themselves, that pain is still being played out today, she explains. 

"We've done some spiritual work on the buildings of the old boarding school and some of the children are still there," says Parker. "We still hear their cries." 

Sexual Violence: Part of the Fabric of Reservation Life 

Sarah Deer teaches law at William Mitchell College of Law.

Interviews with Native women across America support Deer's assertion that rape has become "normalized" on reservations. The women overwhelmingly reported that few, if any, close female friends and relatives have escaped sexual violence. 

"I know only a couple of people who have not been raped. Out of hundreds," said Caroline Antone, a Navajo rape survivor who works with other survivors, in the New York Times. 

Parker says, "There are so many beautiful young Native women" who have been sexually assaulted. "Some recover, others just walk the roads. They seem to be without hope." 

A Wound Where Women Leaders Should Be 

The sexual assault of Native women over generations has had a cumulative effect on women's roles and standing in tribal communities. There is a wound where the women activists, teachers, nurses, doctors and tribal chairs should be. 

Parker says that this loss of women's power is felt in both matrilineal tribes, like the Tulalip, and in patrilineal tribes. 

"Women in tribal communities had previously been revered, well-protected," says Parker. "Women were the keepers of law and justice." 

Deer says that the sense of shame that Indian women feel is intergenerational. And the unwillingness of victims to talk about their experiences has resulted in daughters who are afraid and don't know why. 

"It is fear without identification, fear without knowing the source," Deer explains. "It compounds in each generation, until girls carry the trauma of their mothers and grandmothers and aunties." 

"The Solution Will be Designed by Women Survivors"

On a personal level, according to Parker, the deep spirituality of Native people and their ties to one another are important sources of healing. 

"The strength that I have comes from my spiritual life," she says. 

On a broader level, Deer asserts, a combination of remedies is needed. 

"We need legislation that fixes holes" in current laws and law enforcement, explains Deer. She also supports "the empowerment of Native women in their own communities" and the allocation of "funding and other resources that allow Native women to tackle the issue on their own terms." 

Deer concludes, "The solution will not be designed in Washington. It will be designed by women survivors of sexual assault who have the support of their communities."

Prosecutors in N.D. and S.D. warn about human trafficking

Thursday, July 19, 2012

July 17, 2012 11:45 pm  •  Associated Press

FARGO — Top federal prosecutors from North and South Dakota have added human trafficking to their list of crimes affecting Native Americans at an increased rate in the two states.

U.S. attorneys Brendan Johnson of South Dakota and Timothy Purdon of North Dakota said during a conference on family violence Tuesday that both states are seeing more cases of girls and young women being recruited for prostitution and drug rings.

Three new indictments for human trafficking have been handed down in South Dakota in the last three months, Johnson said.

“You have people who treat their victims like they’re not humans,” Johnson said after talking to a group that included police, social workers, prosecutors, counselors and community leaders.

The operations are formed mainly in populated areas, but American Indian girls are particularly at risk, the prosecutors said. Some of them were recruited by a Sioux Falls-area man who was convicted last year of sex trafficking of a child.

“These young girls were brutalized. They were humiliated,” Johnson said.

Brandon Thompson, 28, of Tea, S.D., was sentenced to life in prison on the sex trafficking charge.

“This is one area where the federal government has gotten it right,” Johnson said of the penalty.

A recent sex trafficking case in North Dakota involved several victims from the Fort Berthold Reservation. Dustin Morsette, 22, of New Town, was convicted of sex trafficking, sexual abuse, drug trafficking and witness tampering. He is awaiting sentencing.

Authorities said Morsette recruited minors and young adults to be part of a gang he described as the Black Disciples. He allegedly forced gang members to distribute marijuana for him and engage in sex acts with him.

One of the investigators in that case, Bureau of Indian Affairs agent Mike White, said the increase in oil workers has added to worries about sex trafficking. But he said recent convictions on human trafficking and other violent crime has made victims and others more willing to help law enforcement.

“I have hope. I’ve seen it already,” White said in an interview Tuesday. “Once they know people are being prosecuted, they are coming forward.”

Purdon, the U.S. attorney from North Dakota, said the campaign against violent crime on the reservation is a long process. He noted that an American Indian woman born in the United States has a 1-in-3 chance of being sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

“Improving public safety in Indian country is not something you are going to knock out in two years,” he said. “If we can sustain this for a period of years, I am hopeful, I am confident, we can impact some of these statistics we find to be unacceptable.”

Indian Health Care Improvement Act Permanent; Supreme Court Decision Upholds Reauthorization

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

June 28, 2012


NCAI to stay focused on improving health care and protecting legislation


Washington, DC - In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), affirming the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) which passed along with the ACA.


"This is an important step for health care in Indian Country; the permanence of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act has been affirmed and NCAI will stay focused on working with all members of Congress to uphold the trust responsibility to tribes," said Jefferson Keel, President of NCAI, the nation's oldest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native advocacy organization. "Moving forward, we are focused on improving health care for Indian Country, while ensuring the Indian Health Care Improvement Act remains protected and implemented as enacted."


The IHCIA permanently authorizes daily health care delivery to nearly 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives served by the Indian Health Service (IHS), who are in critical need of improved health care services. A snapshot of health conditions highlights the critical need for improving health care in Indian Country; Native people suffer from higher rates of diabetes and related illness, heart disease, and substance abuse than any other group.


The IHCIA authorizes new programs within the IHS to ensure the Service is more equipped to meet its mission to raise the health status of American Indians and Alaska Natives to the highest level.


For example, it includes:

  • Authorities for new and expanded programs for mental and behavioral health treatment and prevention;
  • Expanded authorities for long-term care services, including home health care, assisted living and community-based care;
  • New authorities for development of health professional shortage demonstration programs;
  • Expanded authorities for funding of patient travel costs;
  • New authorities for demonstration projects for innovative health care facility construction;
  • New authorities for the provision of dialysis services;
  • Improvements in the Contract Health Services program, which pays for referrals;
  • New authorities for facilitation of care for Indian veterans; and
  • New authorities for urban Indian health programs.

The passage of the IHCIA on March 23, 2010 represented a fourteen year-long effort by NCAI, tribal leaders, and advocates to make permanent the legislative commitment by the federal government to deliver health care for American Indian and Alaska Natives. The IHCIA was originally passed in 1976 and last reauthorized in 2000.


NCAI Contact: Ahniwake Rose, Director of Human Resources Policy -


Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country. NCAI advocates on behalf of tribal governments, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies, and promoting a better understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people and rights.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is up for its third reauthorization in Congress

Tuesday, July 3, 2012
By: Sterling Cosper/Reporter

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is up for its third reauthorization in Congress.

The VAWA has held significance for Native Americans since it originally passed in 1994 through its provision of funds dedicated to native women’s programs, which will be both renewed and increased if the current version of this reauthorization passes.

Perhaps most the important aspect of this year’s reauthorization is a portion that allows tribal jurisdiction in the instance of non-native on native sexual violence.

If passed, the new version of the act will set a precedent for the recognition of tribal sovereignty by the United States federal government and solve the long standing problem of unprosecuted sexual violence against native women by non-native offenders.

Currently, only the federal government has jurisdiction over these cases. State and local courts have no authority on tribal reservations since they are considered sovereign territory and tribes cannot hear cases involving non-natives because they are considered outside the jurisdiction of tribal courts.

However, these cases commonly go unprosecuted. Jurisdictional complexity as well as limited resources of the federal government are often cited as the reason for this.

In 2010, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that from 2005-2009, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67 percent of sexual violence cases occurring on tribal lands.

Almost equal to the rates at which federal prosecutors decline to prosecute these cases, are the number of cases of sexual violence against natives. A regional survey done by the University of Oklahoma showed that nearly three out of five (60 percent) Native American women have been assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners.

An analysis funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that, on some reservations, native women are murdered at 10 times the national average. A nationwide survey done by the NIJ found that one in three American Indian women will be raped in her lifetime.

The bill is still facing opposition in Congress despite these statistics. The original version of the reauthorization passed in the Senate April 26, 2012 by a vote of 68-31, however, it is expected to face heavier opposition in the House.

An anonymous government aide gave more insight as to how the bill may play out in the next step of the legislative process.

“The House is actually producing its own version of the bill. They believe it will be available starting the second week of May,” they said.

There are several partisan specific grievances with the bill including portions that provide further protection for Native Americans, undocumented immigrants and other social groups.

The portions of the reauthorization specific to Native Americans that have been met with opposition are: the allowance of tribal jurisdiction in cases of non-native on native domestic violence, and the increase and reauthorization of funds to native domestic violence programs.

Originally, the tribal portion of the reauthorization was its own bill called the Stand Up Against Native Violence (SAVE). The anonymous aide explained why SAVE was combined in the VAWA reauthorization with contested provisions for these other groups.

“It’s a slow year for legislation and all those bills moving through, there are still very specific groups of victims that are still very much at risk and they wanted to address that with the reauthorization,” they said.

In written correspondence between Sen. Tom Coburn (OK) and MCN Family Violence Prevention Project Coordinator Shawn Partridge, Coburn explained his position on the funding provisions for sexual violence programs in the VAWA reauthorization.

“As a practicing physician, I have seen firsthand the effects of domestic violence and I have a desire to protect the victims of this serious crime. I supported the VAWA when it was reauthorized in 2005 and I worked to ensure the acceptance of amendments that strengthened the act. I must caution, however, that I oppose increased funding for any program that is not paid for by equivalent reductions elsewhere in the budget,” said Coburn.

A joint statement sent by Coburn and Sen. Mike Lee (UT) further outlined their objections to the funding portion of the reauthorization stating that said provisions would be an imposition of the federal government on state’s rights.

“Domestic violence laws are state laws, and nowhere in the Constitution is the federal government tasked with providing basic funding to states, localities and private organizations to operate programs aimed at victims of state crimes such as domestic violence. Far too often, Congress infringes upon the rights of the people and the states by overreaching in its legislative efforts,” their statement said.

Further funding-based objections by the senators to the reauthorization cited the national debt, documentation issues and lack of accountability for the usage of funds as well as other grievances.

“There are several VAWA grant programs that are so broad that they duplicate on another, providing multiple opportunities for grantees to double dip into federal funds. In addition, the Family Violence Prevention and Service Act (FVPSA), which pre-dates the original VAWA legislation, authorized several programs through HHS (the Department of Health and Human Services) aimed at reducing domestic violence and helping victims,” their statement said.

Partridge who also serves as Vice President on the board of the Native Alliance Against Violence (NAAV), addressed this “double dip” concern.

“We have unique needs as tribal people that the state coalition and the state agencies and programs a lot of times do not recognize and understand. They are just not able to understand the unique needs that we have and our victims have as well,” said Partridge.

Partridge went on by explaining the need for further funding to tribal coalitions.

“Every state has its own coalition against domestic and sexual violence, but there is only like 20 tribal coalitions. States have different funding sources to help maintain their coalitions but tribal coalitions are very limited in their funding so there is a disparity there,” said Partridge.

She described the struggle tribes have with what little funds they are currently provided.

“The states do not compete with each other for their coalition funding. However, the tribes have to compete with one another for their funding,” said Partridge.

Coburn and Lee’s statement also addressed the new portion of the VAWA pertaining to tribal jurisdiction over non-native offenders who are accused of sexual violence against a native on tribal land.

In their statement, the senators expressed their concern that the United States Bill of Rights does not apply in Indian courts.

The reauthorization does however, require tribes to guarantee Indian and non-Indian defendants the same Constitutional rights to counsel that would be available in federal or state court, some of which include:

The right against unreasonable search and seizures...

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