Published On: Fri, Jul 15th, 2011

Senate Indian Affairs Committee holds Hearing on Safeguarding American Indian Women

By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.

ONE FEATHER STAFF

 

                The EBCI Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Program held a walk in April honoring Sexual Assault Awareness Month.  Some startling and disturbing facts were presented during that event including one that resounded loud and clear, “Incidence of rape is 3.5 times higher in American Indian communities.” 

                The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held an Oversight Hearing entitled “Native Women: Protecting, Shielding, and Safeguarding Our Sisters, Mothers, and Daughters” on Thursday, July 14 to address this and other issues affecting American Indian women.

                “The Department of Justice has placed a high priority on combating violence against women in tribal communities,” said Thomas J. Perrelli, associate attorney general.  “In anticipation of this year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Department has been engaging in comprehensive discussions, including formal consultations with Indian tribes, about how best to protect the safety of Native women.” 

                Perrelli offered more disturbing facts including:

– Three out of five American Indian women have been assaulted by their spouses or partners (University of Oklahoma study).

– One-third (1/3) of American Indian women will be raped in their lifetime (National Institute of Justice).

                He said the Department of Justice is deploying 28 new assistant U.S. Attorneys to prosecute crimes in Indian Country, and he said the Department is recommending several changes to the federal criminal code including changing some crimes from misdemeanors to felonies to aid in prosecution. 

                “We believe that enacting reforms along these lines – dealing with tribal jurisdiction over crimes of domestic violence, tribal protection orders, and amendments to the Federal assault statute – would significantly improve the safety of women in tribal communities and allow Federal and tribal law enforcement agencies to hold more perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their crimes.”

                Rose Weahkee, Ph.D., is the director of Behavioral Health in the Indian Health Service.  “To adequately address the problem of violence against American Indian/Alaska Native women, IHS focuses on both prevention and treatment services.  IHS treats individuals with associated behavioral health  problems, and engages and empowers communities to change accepted norms of violence.  Prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault begins with strong community prevention programs.” 

                Sarah Deer, Amnesty International USA’s Native American and Alaska Native Advisory Council Member, said many atrocities committed against American Indian women can be traced to the “legacy of abuse and systematic assault on Native culture, land and people as part of European/U.S. colonization of the Americas.” 

                Deer compared the Indian Boarding School years as human trafficking by today’s standards.  “Reports of condition in the schools are harrowing:  cruel and inhuman treatment was the norm and many children experienced a pattern of physical and sexual violence from the early years of the boarding school system, continuing until the end of the 1980s.” 

               She also spoke of the high incidence of violence against women in Indian Country and stated, “For a vast majority of these crimes, the perpetrators will go unpunished, as survivors of sexual violence frequently have to navigate a maze of federal, state and tribal law.” 

               In closing, Deer related, “I would like to impress upon you the importance of prioritizing Native women’s health and safety for the long term.  It will take many years – maybe even decades – to reverse the alarming trends that have only recently been officially documented.  We need to know that the federal government will stand with us for the foreseeable future until such time that Native women are restored to their traditional status of honor in tribal communities.”

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