Violence against women is a distressingly common problem in all segments of US society, but American Indian women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence. Data show that a shocking 1 in 3 American Indian women have been raped in their lifetime – twice the national average. The rate of domestic violence victimization is even higher, with more than 2 out of 5 American Indian women experiencing violence at the hands of a husband or boyfriend.
The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, which is the largest US survey devoted to the victimization experiences of children and youth, shows that this vulnerability even extends to American Indian girls. The survey, which is conducted by David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, and myself, found that 1 in 10 American Indian girls have been raped in our sample of youth, which includes 17-year-olds and younger. This is nine times the average for other American girls. We also found that 2 out of 5 American Indian girls have witnessed domestic violence between their parents – a rate that is 2 1/2 times higher than the US average for other girls.
Such high rates of violence are a call to action. The Senate has passed a version of the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act that includes legal reforms that are an important first step toward helping American Indian victims of sexual and family violence. The House of Representatives version was stripped of the provisions to enhance support for American Indian victims. The House needs to agree to pass the Senate version or add these key provisions back when both houses meet in conference to reconcile the two versions.
One striking way that sexual violence against American Indian women is different is that almost all of the perpetrators are non-Indian. Eighty-six percent of the perpetrators of sexual offenses against American Indian women are non-Indian, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data from the US Department of Justice. This differs sharply from patterns for other US ethnic groups.
For example, according to the same data, only 27 percent of white female victims have nonwhite perpetrators, and only 17 percent of African-American rape victims are assaulted by non-African-American men. This might be largely a statistical curiosity if it were not for the different legal standards in force on reservation land. The federal government restricts the ability of tribal police to arrest or even detain a non-Indian perpetrator of any crime. Even a non-Indian who lives full-time on a reservation and is married to an American Indian woman cannot be arrested by tribal police.
Currently, the only way that a non-Indian who commits domestic or sexual violence on land under tribal jurisdiction can be prosecuted is through the federal court system. But US attorneys offices are not set up to handle local crime and simply do not have the manpower to manage all of the cases. Further, even if they do take a case, by the time they respond, often from offices located hours away from the scene of the crime, the trail is cold and physical evidence is hard to obtain.
Perhaps because of these reasons, data from 2005 to 2009 indicate that US attorneys offices declined 67 percent of sexual offense cases involving American Indian women victims. The Senate version of the new Violence Against Women Act will start to close this legal loophole by giving tribal courts the power to prosecute non-Indians who perpetrate domestic or dating violence and who violate protection orders on tribal land through concurrent, joint jurisdiction with federal courts.
The version that the House passed does not include these new protections for American Indian women. Legal reform will only be one piece to the solution for better protecting American Indian women and girls from sexual and family violence. Other steps, like better access to emergency health care, will also be important to the solution. Increasing respect for the rights and safety of women and girls everywhere is also needed. These legal reforms embodied in the Senate version of of the act are a first step in that direction. The House should join the Senate in passing a version that will lead to better protection of American Indian women and girls.
Sherry Hamby is a research associate professor in psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South and editor of the journal Psychology of Violence.