Violence Against Native Women gains global attention


Jana Walker, Senior Attorney
Indian Law Resource Center

Dorma Sahneyah, Vice Chairperson, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center; and Executive Director, Hopi Tewa Women’s Coalition to End Abuse

Lisa Brunner, Executive Director
Sacred Spirits First Nation Coalition

Terri Henry, Co-Chair, National Congress of American Indians
Task Force on Violence Against Native Women; Tribal Council Representative, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; and Principal Director, Clan Star, Inc.

Virginia Davis, U.S. Department of Justice

Jodi Gillette, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior

“Violence Against Native Women in the United States”

Thematic Hearing Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
143rd  Ordinary Period of Sessions

On October 25, Native women leaders and advocates testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to shed light on the epidemic of violence currently facing Native women in the United States.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is an international body created to investigate whether member nations of the Organization of American States are meeting their obligations under international human rights treaties and conventions.  The purpose of this unprecedented hearing was to examine how U.S. policies have created a human rights crisis for Native women, in violation of the U.S.’ international obligations to protect Native women’s rights to life, security, and access to justice.

Leaders and advocates from the Indian Law Resource Center, the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and Clan Star, Inc. recommended policy and law reform proposals and asked the Commission to help bring the United States into compliance with its international human rights obligations to keep Native women safe.  The Commission additionally heard testimony from representatives from the U.S. Department of the Interior and Department of Justice. 

An epidemic of violence and failed policies

Participants at the hearing described the extreme rates of violence experienced by Native women today. “Native women are being subjected to domestic violence and assault at staggering rates – rates two and a half times higher than any other group in the United States,” testified Jana Walker, Senior Attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center. “One in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime, and three out of five will be physically assaulted.  On some reservations women are being murdered at a rate ten times the national average.” Walker explained that actual rates of violence are likely even higher than these figures, due to widespread under-reporting of crimes against women.

The Commission heard from Native advocates how this high rate of violence against Native women is a result of flawed U.S. policies and law.  Dorma Sahneyah, Vice Chairperson of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and Executive Director of the Hopi Tewa Women’s Coalition to End Abuse, explained to Commissioners how U.S. legislation and judicial decisions have stripped tribes of their criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians in Indian country, preventing effective protection for Native women.  “Nationally 88% of all violent crimes against Indian women are committed by non-Indians,” emphasized Sahneyah.  She explained that, although other governments have the authority to investigate and prosecute crimes committed against women in non-Indian communities, “United States law has left tribal governments with inadequate legal authority to protect its citizens, allowing perpetrators to prey on Native women with impunity.”

With respect to violence against women committed by Native perpetrators, witnesses described how U.S. law has restricted the amount of jail time and fines that tribal courts can impose.  This inadequate sentencing leads to repeat attacks, deters reporting of such violence, and ultimately, denies Native women who have been violently assaulted meaningful access to justice.

While U.S. law prevents tribal governments from effectively dealing with violence against women, federal and state law enforcement agencies are failing to keep Native women safe.  Witnesses cited a recent study finding that federal prosecutors declined to prosecute 62% of all criminal cases, 75% of rape and sexual assault cases, and 72% of child sexual assault cases occurring in Native communities.

Lisa Brunner, Executive Director of Sacred Spirits First Nation Coalition, described the law enforcement void in remote Alaska communities. “Violence against women and children is being perpetuated in communities where there exists no form of law enforcement, and no infrastructure to address these incidences,” she explained.  “When and if a community reports an act of violence against a woman or a child, it can take Alaska State Troopers from one to ten days to respond; in some cases it may take longer. . . .”  Advocates also stressed that for Native communities whose women and girls are victims of violence, trafficking, and abuse, there is no time for inaction.  “This issue of missing and murdered Native women demands immediate attention,” said Brunner.

During the hearing, representatives of the United States acknowledged the role of federal policies and law in contributing to the epidemic of violence against Native women. “The current legal structure for prosecuting violence against women crimes in Indian country is simply not working,” stated Virginia Davis, Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.  “We know that tribal governments, tribal police, tribal prosecutors, and courts must be an essential part of the response to these crimes, but under current law, they lack the authority to address many of them.”

Finding a way toward safety

While Native advocates commended recent progress by the Obama administration in addressing violence against Native women, they stressed that much more work remains to be done.  “Legal reforms are urgently needed to bring the United States into full compliance with international human rights law in the context of the violence committed against American Indian women,” stated Terri Henry, Co-Chair of the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Native Women, and Tribal Council Representative of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The recommendations for the United States put forward by Native witnesses included restoring the criminal authority of Indian nations to prosecute non-Native offenders within Indian country; increasing technical and financial support to Indian nations and Native women’s organizations to enhance their response to violence against Native women and support to survivors of violence; ensuring full implementation of the Tribal Law and Order Act, particularly with respect to the exercise of enhanced sentencing authority by Indian nations and training and cooperation among tribal, state, and federal agencies; and creation of a collaborative initiative to examine additional ways to ensure protection of Native women’s rights.

“Violence against Native women is a human rights crisis that Indian Country has been aware of for some time,” concluded Walker.  “So we very much appreciate the Commission’s attention and . . . urge its continuing interest in protecting the safety and the human rights of Native women in the United States.”

Participants asked the Commission to conduct site visits to Indian nations throughout the United States to further investigate the epidemic of violence against Native women and its implications for the United States’ international human rights obligations.  Commissioners thanked the Native petitioners for raising this important issue, and requested additional information as they determine what recommendations should be made to the United States.

The Native women leaders and advocates are hopeful that the hearing and any actions and recommendations by the Commission will add pressure on the United States to do something to end violence against Native women.  The hearing by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights comes just as the U.S. Congress begins consideration of life-saving legislation such as the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and S. 1793, the “Stand Against Violence and Empower (SAVE) Native Women Act”, introduced by Chairman Akaka on October 31, 2011.