Failure to Protect

June 18, 2007

Failure to Protect

Summer 2007

Failure to Protect

More than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women in the United States will experience sexual violence in her lifetime. The U.S. government is largely to blame, according to AI.

By Jodi Rave

"X" endured years of escalating physical and sexual violence at the hands of her former husband. He was charged in a state court with attempted murder, but the case never reached trial. A plea agreement resulted in five years' probation and a restraining order for life.
© Adam Nadel

Lenora Hootch sat inside an Alaska women's shelter drinking hot coffee at the kitchen table with a co-worker, Joanne Horn. Outside, a winter wonderland played host to air gusts blowing near 30 degrees below zero from the Bering Sea eight miles to the west. Wind from gray skies smacked the shelter and other fragile-looking homes scattered throughout Emmonak, Alaska.

It was Wednesday, and the women in the Yup'ik village were worried. It had been three days since Horn had tried, unsuccessfully, to get a local state trooper to respond to the sexual assault of a teenager in the village of Kotlik, a three-hour snowmobile ride away. The girl's mother had asked Horn to call the troopers because she couldn't reach them herself. "We called the troopers here, and there was a recording to call St. Mary's," said Horn. "I called St. Mary's, and they said to call Bethel. When I talked to Bethel, they said there were state troopers here."

"That happens to us all the time," said Hootch, the Emmonak Women's Shelter director.

The Land of the Midnight Sun, as Alaska is known, is famous for its striking geography, vast areas of pristine wilderness and days of endless sunlight. Yet it is a dangerous place for Alaska Native women. Alaska already has the highest rate of rape of any state in the country. But for Alaska Native women, the likelihood of being raped is even higher: Between 2000 and 2003, Alaska Native people in Anchorage were 9.7 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the rest of the Anchorage population, according to a study published in 2006 by the University of Alaska, Anchorage (the study included a very small number of males).

Native American women in the rest of the country are affected by similarly startling disparities. Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that, nationwide, American Indian and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times more likely to suffer a rape or sexual assault than the general U.S. female population. Equally disturbing is the fact that at least 86 percent of the men who commit sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women are non-Indian--the vast majority being white men--a marked contrast to sexual violence data on other ethnic groups showing that perpetrators generally belong to the same ethnic group as victims. Taken together, these numbers reveal that Indigenous women have, in fact, become targets of violence.

Karen Artichoker, director of Sacred Circle, a national resource center for Native American women in Rapid City, S.D., remembers how Native women reacted when they first heard the statistic that one in three Indigenous women will be raped in her lifetime.

"Don't you think that's kind of low?" they asked her. Every woman they knew had experienced a sexual assault, she said.

As alarming as the official statistics are, they greatly underestimate the severity of the problem, according to Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA, a report published in April by Amnesty International after AIUSA's research team conducted two years of national research. Among the general population, violence against women is underreported because of concern over breaches in confidentiality, fear of retaliation and a lack of confidence that reporting a crime will lead to justice. For Native American and Alaska Native women, historically complicated relations with federal and state government law enforcement agencies further hinder reporting.

Leona Kitto, a Dakota Indian, lives on the Flandreau Reservation in South Dakota. She works at the Flandreau Indian School, where she continues a journey of healing after enduring years of sexual abuse. She has spent many hours talking with teenage girls at boarding school who share her experience. They call the 66-year-old woman Grandma.

Kitto cries when she thinks of their stories and how they mirror her own. She holds the girls, and she tells them: "That feeling will never go away. But we still got to heal and we got to go on." She wiped tears from her eyes as she sat in the Wholeness Center, a domestic violence and sexual assault shelter in Flandreau. "I went through that in my younger days," she said. "It's a hard feeling. I'll cry every time. But that crying kind of heals me. I learned to think that way. We have to let the hurt feelings out."

The pain of these women raises the question, how have they become part of a national dilemma in which Native women are among the most raped and violently abused people in the country? The AI report confirms the reality that Native American and Alaska Native advocacy groups have been dealing with for many years: the U.S. government has failed dismally to protect the basic human rights of Indigenous women.

"The United States is legally obligated to take the necessary steps to assure that Native women?and all individual--are able to enjoy and exercise their human rights," said Robert Coulter, an international human rights attorney and executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont. "This must be done through adequate law enforcement, policing and through the provision of effective court remedies, at the very least. This is required by the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and by the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man."

In non-Native U.S. communities, the right to live free from fear of sexual violence is increasingly protected by engaged police forces, sensitive reporting protocols and aggressive prosecution of assault suspects. Vast numbers of Native American and Alaska Native women, however, do not enjoy this basic right--the result of a legacy of state violence against Native American and Alaska Native peoples combined with jurisdictional confusion and a severe paucity of resources. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, tribes now operate with only 55 to 75 percent of the law enforcement resources available to comparable non-Native rural communities."

By day four, Hootch and Horn still had no word about whether the local state troopers had contacted the mother of the girl who had been assaulted in Kotlik village. Face-to-face contact with a state trooper was, in fact, unlikely. Some state troopers have been known to respond to a sexual assault by simply taking a report over the telephone.

In fact, it was sheer luck that the woman in Kotlik village had even been able to reach Horn, because the Emmonak Women's Shelter was officially closed. The state had cut off funding for the shelter months ago, and Hootch and Horn had been in the office only to meet the deadline for a federal grant application with hope of reopening the shelter. For now, Emmonak and neighboring villages had nothing to offer those in need.

It wasn't always this way. Before Alaska became a state in 1959, nearly every Alaska Native village had had a council that was actively engaged in law enforcement and dispute resolution. Upon statehood, Alaska was included in Public Law 280, which transferred federal authority over crimes committed by and against Alaska Native peoples to some states, giving them concurrent criminal jurisdiction with tribes to prosecute crimes committed by and against Native American and Alaska Native peoples on tribal land. The State of Alaska not only argued that the transfer extinguished the Alaska Native villages' criminal law enforcement authority but also reportedly threatened councils with criminal prosecution "should they attempt to enforce their village laws." Yet state agencies didn't step in to provide their own law enforcement services.

Today the Yup'ik must rely on frequently unresponsive state troopers to respond to crimes. Although the State of Alaska established a local law enforcement service, known as village police safety officers, in the late 1970s, these officers are not certified by the Alaska Police Standard Council because they do not meet qualification requirements. They cannot investigate serious crimes without approval of state troopers, and dealing with sexual violence is not their responsibility. Yet delayed response from state troopers means the village police are often the first--or only--officers to respond to sexual crimes.

Herman Hootch, husband to Lenora, the shelter director, used to be a village police officer. Although he never received law enforcement training, he was often the first to receive calls when villagers had been raped or murdered, or had committed suicide. Hootch was on the scene after a young man shot himself in the face five years ago. The troopers arrived, ruled it a suicide and immediately released the dead man to the family without conducting an autopsy or doing an investigation. "We had to take the body and take care of it ourselves," said Hootch. "We put it in a body bag." On numerous other occasions, Hootch ran on foot to crime scenes because he was never given an all-terrain vehicle or car to do his job. Village volunteers have had to use their homes as offices or as holding facilities for suspects.

Such ad hoc policing is especially harmful to sex-crime victims in Alaska. First responder teams are supposed to let state troopers handle the calls, yet as with the teenager who had been sexually assaulted in Kotlik, it can take days to get a trooper to respond. The AI report confirms that law enforcement responses to sex crimes against Indigenous women throughout the United States are typically slow and inadequate, seriously compromising the progress of investigations, especially with regard to conducting forensic examinations or enlisting a qualified health professional to administer a rape kit to collect samples from victims and to fill out reports.

Horn, the shelter worker, could not confirm what ever happened to the teenage rape victim in Kotlik village, but within a month's time, she did learn that the male perpetrator had been arrested in a local village.

Inadequate policing is compounded by a confusing web of jurisdictional quandaries created by the federal government. For crimes of sexual violence committed on tribal land, whether the perpetrator is Indian determines the police force and the judicial system responsible for bringing the perpetrator to justice. In Oklahoma, officers responding to a crime must tap into a mental map of jurisdictional boundaries before they even ask what happened. Sometimes the confusion is such that no one intervenes.

Even when police officers do respond, prosecutorial efforts at the tribal, state and federal levels are particularly feeble. Tribal courts, in particular, are hobbled by inadequate funding, sentencing maximums of one year, and prohibitions on trying non-Native suspects. For their part, federal and state authorities often decline to prosecute cases of sexual violence that fall within their exclusive jurisdiction. The Department of Justice keeps no record of how many cases of sexual violence against Indigenous women federal prosecutors have declined, but anecdotal evidence suggests the vast majority are not prosecuted. AI also found that, at all stages and levels of federal and state courts, Indigenous survivors of sexual violence face prejudice and discrimination that influence decisions about whether to prosecute cases, how prosecutors present survivors during trials, how juries are selected and how they formulate decisions.

On Aug. 16, 1999, a Montana Judge dismissed all charges against a man charged with killing his Blackfeet Indian girlfriend. "That happens all the time," said Andrea Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and a leading expert on domestic violence against women of color. "Non-Native perpetrators often seek out a reservation place because they know they can inflict violence without much happening to them."

Indigenous women have, understandably, taken the work of advocacy, education and healing into their own hands--often patching together federal, state, and tribal funds with individual donations to sustain their work. In recent years, 16 tribal coalitions have formed across the country and have begun working to train tribal governments, law enforcement, prosecutors, health professionals, support workers and activists about the needs of Indigenous women survivors of sexual violence.

"There is so much shame that comes with being a victim," says Norma Rendon, a woman's advocate at the Cangleska Shelter on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Before the shelter opened, Pine Ridge women who were willing to report a sex crime had had to drive 120 miles to get help. But in a major victory for local women, in February the Cangleska Shelter hired its first full-time employee to work specifically with sexual assault victims. It also acquired rape kits.

Sacred Circle, in South Dakota, was also founded by Indigenous women to assist their sisters in the process of recovery from violence and sexual abuse. The program recognizes the respected role Lakota women traditionally had in their tribal communities, and it continually infuses these practices into programs to help heal children, families and communities.

"It's a credit to us Indian women that we are stepping forward and saying this is a problem and it has to stop," said Karen Artichoker, director of Sacred Circle. "We're talking about the issue." On reservations and villages where sexual violence goes unreported, uninvestigated, and unprosecuted, talking about the issue is a vital first step toward human rights. "Collectively," Artichoker said, "we've built the awareness."

"It's a real victory."

For the full text of AI's report, Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA »

Take Action

In 2005, the efforts of activists nationwide led to congressional reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which addresses domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking in the United States, and provides victims with vital resources. Congress established the Tribal Title (Title IX) of VAWA to address the specific needs of Native American and Alaska Native women.


Please join Indigenous women in bringing attention to the serious problem of sexual violence and support the work of the many Indigenous organizations and activists at the forefront of efforts to protect and respect the rights of women. You can help ensure the rights of Native American and Alaska Native women right now by urging the U.S. government to fully fund VAWA, particularly the Tribal Title (Title IX). Write to Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to express concern about the levels of sexual violence against Indigenous women and the systemic failure to punish those responsible. Letters should urge him to support the full funding of the Violence Against Women Act, in particular the appropriation of $2.5 million for the Tribal Title IX.

Appeals to:

2314 Rayburn
House Office Bldg.
Washington, DC 20515