Many federally recognized tribes are celebrating the reauthorization of VAWA, which contains key provisions that authorize tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians in sexual assault and domestic violence cases on reservation. For too long, tribal courts in the Lower 48 have lacked the ability to prosecute non-Indians, and this is a promising step in the right direction.
Some tribes will undoubtedly benefit from expanded jurisdiction in this area, yet the nature of sexual assault and domestic violence in reservation communities has been distorted by many of VAWA’s fiercest advocates. These advocates, who include Indian legal scholars, novelists and artists, have framed the issue as one in which non-Natives – acting with impunity in a jurisdictional vacuum – are almost solely responsible for violence against Indian women.
Yet those of us who are from or have spent significant time in Alaska Native or reservation communities know that the opposite is true: all too often, Native men are responsible for the bulk of violence against Native women in our communities.
In the run up to and since the passage of VAWA, countless news articles report a disturbing yet sloppily cited statistic: that in more than 86 percent of reported sexual assault and domestic violence cases on reservation, non-Indian men are the perpetrators. In her 2005 op-ed for this newspaper, prominent Indian activist Suzan Harjo used this statistic to paint a picture of Indian women on reservations being preyed upon by non-Indian men. Indian legal scholar N. Bruce Duthu and novelist Louise Erdrich did the same in their 2008 and 2013 op-eds for the New York Times.
The "more than 80 percent" statistic cited by Harjo, Duthu and Erdrich, and repeated in the same fashion by news media, comes from a December 2004 report published by the Department of Justice called American Indians and Crime. In the report, sexual assault data are published from a crime survey taken telephonically by self-identifying American Indian men and women dispersed throughout the U.S. Survivors of sexual assault who took the survey said that the perpetrator was non-Indian in 86 percent of cases, with the remaining 14 percent either American Indian or Asian.
Contrary to the way this statistic is often cited, it is not a figure representative of sexual assault in reservation communities. This detail matters because most Indians live off reserve, mainly in urban parts of the country.
The statistic gained widespread attention and began to be sweepingly applied to all reservation communities after it was cited in Amnesty International's high-profile 2007 report Maze of Injustice, even though both reports make it explicitly clear that there is very little reservation specific data on sexual assault and domestic violence.
This distortion of who perpetrates sexual assault and domestic violence in Native communities needs to end because it downplays the varied stories of survivors by placing responsibility almost solely on non-Natives. This is especially harmful in a society in which survivors already experience shame, victim blaming, and bullying.
As an indirect result of the way sexual assault has been presented, unrealistic expectations now swirl around the ability of VAWA's tribal jurisdiction provisions to end violence against Indian women on reserve, when in reality many tribes fail to adequately investigate, try and prosecute Indian perpetrators.
For instance, on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, there is a lack of law enforcement capacity at multiple levels, inadequate resources, and a pervasive rape culture in which survivors of assault often experience victim blaming, bullying, intimidation and apathy – issues that also characterize national attitudes toward sexual assault and women in general. Harper’s magazine published an article in 2011 (“Tiny Little Laws”) showing that sexual assault on Stand Rocking is often tied up in petty tribal politics:
“On Standing Rock, family loyalty and family vengeance can affect the course of justice. Large families and people who have relatives on the tribal council or in the police department or the courts have power on the reservation. And as in any small town, everybody knows everybody else. So who can you confide in, who can you trust? Women are reluctant even to seek counselling at the IHS hospital because they’re afraid people will find out. Victims of childhood molestation often live for decades in silence. These issues, unfortunately, are not unique to Standing Rock.”
When well-meaning advocates and news media distort the "more than 80 percent" statistic by applying it to all reservation communities, they are suggesting that reducing sexual assault and domestic violence on reservation hinges on tribes' ability to prosecute non-Natives. In the process, they inadvertently help to preserve rape culture and protect Native rapists and batterers by fostering a myth: non-Native men rape and batter but Native men don't. They also very optimistically suggest that tribal courts are adequately handling Native on Native sexual assault and domestic violence cases and are equipped to investigate, try and prosecute non-Native perpetrators, when in reality many tribes struggle to deliver justice to their own members. They ignore realities on reservations like Standing Rock and Rosebud in favor of a Native vs. non-Native narrative that conveniently allows us to avoid taking accountability.
Instead of perpetuating the more than 80% statistic, we need to have an honest conversation in our community about how violence against Native women too often begins and ends with Native men. This includes identifying the action steps needed to change the way we think about and treat women, in addition to the systemic legal, jurisdictional and societal challenges that contribute to a flourishing rape culture on reservation and in the wider American society.
At the end of the day, the only way to prevent rape and domestic violence is to teach men not to rape and batter women. It's time to end this invented Native vs. non-Native narrative and take a good look in the mirror. Our ancestors were braver than this.
Timothy Aqukkasuk Argetsinger (Iñupiaq) has worked extensively for Alaska Native and Canadian Inuit advocacy organizations on social and economic issues. He is a blogger at AlaskaIndigenous.wordpress.com. He is from Anchorage.