©2007, 2009 Kimberly M. Hartfield
With approximately two million Native American Indians, 550 federally recognized tribes, and over 250 native languages, these tribal nations maintain separate cultures, customs, languages, and histories, so we should considered them diverse populations. The reservations in which they live cover about fifty million acres of land in North America. United States history tells us that the repeated exploitation of the native peoples by land seizures, forced migration, purposeful depletion of life-sustaining herds and food supplies, and exclusion from educational, business, and other economic opportunities has resulted in a devastatingly high level of poverty among them. Unemployment rates average about 37% on most Indian Reservations.
Domestic and sexual violence are not traditional cultural practices of Native American Indians. Historically, violence among the indigenous Indians of North America was rare because it threatened their belief in harmony. When violence did occur, it was met with harsh punishments and sometimes even banishment. In order to understand the high rate of sexual and domestic violent assaults against women, the historical treatment of native populations must be seen as a change from a traditionally peaceful people to a culture of oppression, marked by high rates of crime and poverty. The systematic oppression of native cultures led to a particular degradation of the females in those cultures. Racism functioned as an emotional and cultural abuse, which has created extremely low self-esteem among Native Americans in general, and particularly among the women of that culture. The adoption of the widespread use of alcohol has been a major contributing factor to the abuse of the women and children by Native Indian men.
The history of the mistreatment of the American Indians by the federal government and some of the early colonists is filled with accounts of racism, exploitation, forced migration, war, disease, introduction of alcohol, and oppression. These oppressive practices of the surrounding culture have influenced many of the traditional values and practices of the Native Americans to their detriment. Indian children were forced into federally sanctioned boarding homes, where many were physically and sexually abused by their caretakers (Sexual Assault in Indian Country: 2000). Land acquisition by the government, along with forced migration to reservations, also had a very negative effect on the Native American population. The introduction of alcohol to their culture, followed by the widespread adoption of its use by Native American males, remains a debilitating result of the infiltration of the Native American cultures. As among other people groups there is a definite correlation between the use of alcoholic beverages and violent crime rates. American Indians, especially the females, experience violent victimization at an alarmingly high rate. The rate of reported violent crime in Indian territories is more than twice as high as the national average and is well beyond that of all other ethnic groups.
The average annual violent crime rate among American Indians is about two and a half times higher than the national rate. In every age group, rates of violence are higher than that of any other race in the United States. At least 70% of the violent victimization of American Indians is committed by those of other races. The average annual rate of rape and sexual assault is three and a half times higher than all other races. And these are only those assaults that are reported, as most Native American women probably do not report the experience of domestic and sexual trauma.
Though the reported rates of violence are well documented, the full extent of sexual and domestic violence is difficult to know due to the infrequent reporting of these types of crimes by the victims. The rate of assaults in Indian territories, though disturbingly high, is likely much higher than what the current statistics reveal, and the true extent of the problem cannot be fully known. In spite of some efforts by tribal governments to deal with these issues, by far, too many Native American women have internalized victimizations, and sexual and domestic violence is now commonplace among this people group.
In the context of the current prevalence of violence, historical oppression, and a tangled web of jurisdictional issues, sexual and domestic violence impacts Native American victims with the further mistrust of judicial systems, which often provides them with little remedy for any effective or timely justice. Jurisdictional confusion and overlap makes any real justice almost impossible for both the victims and all others who may be involved. Conflicts concerning jurisdiction promote an apathetic lack of concern by officials, which is used as an excuse for their untimely action or no action at all. This often has dire consequences for victims, service providers, and for obtaining accurate statistics. Violent victimization, internalized oppression, and complicated jurisdictional issues have placed American Indian Women at particular risk for continued abuse from their Indian spouses and non-Indians alike.
Domestic Violence Solutions: Working to end the intergenerational cycle of domestic violence. Available: http://www.dvsolutions.org/DVSolutionsReturntotheCircle.htm
National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Sexual Assault in Indian Country: Confronting Sexual Violence. (2000). Available: http://www.nsvrc.org/publications/booklets/indian.htm