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."