American Indian and Alaska Native women are raped at a rate three to 10 times greater than the national average. Sarah Deer, Mvskoke, an attorney and professor of law who has worked for 20 years to end violence against women, says changing this statistic should be the number one priority of tribal governments because rape is a direct and serious threat to tribal sovereignty.
Deer’s most recent book, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America, will be published this fall by the University of Minnesota Press.
In an interview with ICTMN, Deer explains, “Native people suffer from a high rate of social ills—drug abuse and addiction, as well as mental and physical health challenges. Experiencing rape has been shown to increase rates of lung disease, heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, obesity.”
Deer continues, “It’s difficult to really be a true, strong sovereign government when so many of the people in the community have suffered sexual assault because when you have these very high rates of health disparities and other challenges, this means that those people who are suffering may not be able to contribute to the health and welfare of the tribe because they are struggling with their own issues.”
She notes that the high rate of suicide among the American Indian/Alaska Native population, including the suicides of teens and children, can often be traced to sexual violence committed against them. “If we look at the foundational experiences that the teens who commit suicide have had we find a very common theme in quite a few cases that these suicides are connected to some form of sexual violence that they’ve experienced.”
Deer investigates the relationship between rape and colonialism where rape is a tool of conquest, a metaphor for colonialism, and a part of the fundamental American understanding of what place women, especially women of color, occupy in our culture and in the law.
She recounts the history of Anglo-American statutes on rape, which not very long ago defined rape as a crime against a man’s property, not a physical and spiritual assault on a woman that leaves deep psychic wounds.
This attitude is not a thing of the past. It is still present in male-centered rape statutes and in the conduct of rape trials where the most common defense is to further shame, humiliate and dehumanize the victim by trying to invalidate the rape or to make the rape the victim’s fault. This contrasts to much traditional tribal law, which is victim-centered, says Deer.
But contemporary tribal rape laws, where they exist, are usually based on state law, and often reflect the same biases against women. Changes in Western concepts of rape and the statutes that define and punish it change very slowly, says Deer.
And this is where tribes could make a huge difference, not only for AI/AN victims of rape, but for all victims.
Deer tells ICTMN, “The advantage the tribes have at this point in our nation’s history is that many tribes do not yet have comprehensive anti-rape strategies in law, which is understandable given the legal system and the challenges that tribal nations face in addressing these types of crimes.”
“So there’s a perfect opportunity to say, ‘What would a good anti-rape strategy look like from the ground up if we don’t have the baggage and the trappings of American rape law, which is deeply problematic? What can we do outside of that construct?’ If tribes are really able to deal with rape without falling into the same mistakes that the American system has made, then they might indeed come up with models that could work for rape victims throughout the world,” says Deer.
Deer notes that the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, both of which give tribes more authority to prosecute and punish rape, could be the opening that tribes need to redefine rape as an extremely serious crime against women.
She offers some suggestions for how tribes might go about that task, including having elders present at the table and not assuming that tribal peace-making courts, which again are created and defined by men, are an appropriate forum for prosecuting rapists.
This book is both scholarly and easily understood by the layperson. Deer is extremely thorough in her discussions of the history of rape law and its failings. She explores the meaning of rape in American society from a woman’s point of view. And she presents some possible strategies to begin to create equity, justice and healing for victims of rape. Highly recommended for everyone who cares about women and children.
Sarah Deer teaches law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2014 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.