Understanding the Violence Against Native American Women

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When you hear about the prevalence of violence against women, it might seem disstressing, but for Native American women, it's appalling. Violence against Native American women is disproportionately worse than all other demographics in the country. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of rape or sexual violence is 3.5 times higher with Native American women than the rate of rape or sexual violence of women of any other race in the United States. The U.S. government for years has ignored the problem and as a result the statistics have only gotten worse.

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​Results from a recent National Institute of Justice funded study shows that more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women (84.3 percent) have experienced violence in their lifetime. Non-Indians are responsible for the majority of crimes on tribal lands and until recently, tribes had no authority to arrest, prosecute, or punish the offender. Despite international human rights organizations hard work to raise awareness of the problem, and the 2013 addition of the Violence Against Women's Reauthorization Act (VAWA), Indian women continue to experience high levels of violence. ​Until the ongoing colonial context that has been perpetuating the violence in tribes is addressed, the U.S. government prioritizes and recognizes the issue, and the legal gaps and distrust between tribes and the government is fixed, this injustice on Native American women will remain.

A major cause for the ongoing violence against Native American women is the history of colonization, which is rooted in violence. The ongoing colonial context perpetuates and supports violence against Native American women. Traditionally, Native American societies were matrilineal, women owned most of the property, and played a primary role in society (Weaver 1554). Men and women lived in balance and respect; sexual violence was uncommon and regarded as a serious crime (Halldin 5). This was disrupted by colonization, where conquering Indian women was central to the colonizers' success because of the important roles women played there. Because women held lots of power in tribes, they became a target for colonizers. Colonizers broke the gender roles in the Native society and over time generally caused First Nations men to assume more power and domination over women (Weaver 1554). Colonization has instilled a sexism that is still present in modern tribal politics and communities.

Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal act established the foundation for the American Indian reservation system. It marginalized American Indians to a greater extent while simultaneously moving White society to a dominant cultural and political position, as well as creating distrust of White society (Helgesen 445). This has made the reservations a site of oppression and resistance. ​Historical oppression, over time, becomes embodied and self-perpetuating among those who have been oppressed (Burnette 537). Years of being in an oppressive and submissive environment leads Native American women to take a passive stance or not speak out on an injustice. In other words, coping mechanisms that arise in response to historical oppression may have unintended negative effects on individuals, families, and communities over time and may inadvertently perpetuate the very problems introduced by historical oppression (538). In Catherine Burnette's article she interviews various Native

American abuse victims and one explains the tendency in the community to keep things quiet, "even to this day, anything that happens like that (abuse or violence), they usually just overlook it or try to 'hush-hush' the situation or try to make a deal with you and try to get rid of the problem pretty quick." So because of historical oppression - negative and discriminatory experiences by the dominant population - Native Americans have kept information hidden, which actually perpetuates the violence. Instead of having healthy and healing conversations about the abuse, silence has stopped the opportunity to fix the situation.

The depressing environment of reservations has also made alcoholism a major problem in Native American communities and thus a major contributor in the amount of crimes against women (Helgesen 459). Feeling they have nothing to work towards, many Native Americans turn to alcohol and/or opioids. This creates an even more hostile environment for the Native American women, many now also facing domestic abuse by their drunk husbands. An U.S.

Department of Justice study showed that over two-thirds (68%) of American Indian and Alaska Native sexual assault victims believed their attackers had been drinking and/or taking drugs before the offense. This is just another explanation to the high percentage of violence committed against Native American women.

Native American culture has a distinct oral history, passing down stories of the past. Because of this they have not forgotten what has been done to them by white men. When tribes engage with federal prosecutors or investigators they still see an outsider there to further the agenda of the U.S. government (Helgesen 457). The investigators then cannot earn the full trust of the Native Americans, and the process of bringing cases of violence against Native American women to justice becomes even harder. Because of this distrust, an us versus them mentality has been created and many crimes have been left unreported.​ In order to build a better relationship between federal and tribal governments the U.S. government should increase its collaboration with tribes on a governmental basis and prove that they have their best interests in mind. This would be one step in the right direction in building trust between the two parties, with hopefully more crimes then being reported because of that new trust.

In 1999, the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice statistics found that nine out of ten Native American victims of sexual violence had white or black assailants. This is in part due to the high percentage of non-natives living on reservations. 46% of people living on reservations in 2010 were non-Native and 59% of Native women were in relationships with non-native men (US Census Bureau, Summary File 1). In ​Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1972), ​the Supreme Court held that Indian tribes do not inherently possess criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Prosecutions can be brought against non-indians only in federal or state court (Larkin, Jr. and Luppino-Esposito 16). As a result, for years many Native American women were left unprotected from sexual assault and violence, while the perpetrators were left unpunished.

For example, ​feder​al, state, and tribal law enforcement officials often did not know whether they had the authority to respond to reports of domestic violence. Upon re​ceiving a report of domestic violence, federal agents generally first asked if the incident occurred in Indian country. If it did, the federal officers of​ten left the scene, claiming that they lacked authority to address the situation. Tribal officials responding to such calls acted similarly due to con​fusion about their authority resulting from jurisdictional gap (Oppenheimer 862).

Then the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 was enacted, which allocates to tribal authorities the power to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence Indians, and non-Indians with ties to tribal lands, accused of committing certain domestic abuse crimes against American Indian women in Indian Country (Griffith 807). This act is a major development in the effort to end violence against Native American women, especially when considering the huge percentage of non-Indian individuals who reside on reservations or are spouses. However, crimes between two non-Indians or between two strangers are not covered by VAWA 2013.

Domestic violence crimes committed by a person who lacks strong ties to the tribe also do not fall under the scope of this law (810). An Indian tribe can only exercise "special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over a defendant" if the defendant "resides in the Indian country of the participating tribe; is employed in the Indian country of the participating tribe; or is a spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner of a member of the participating tribe or an Indian who resides in the Indian country of the participating tribe,"(810). So non-Indians who visit for a while, commit crimes against women, then go back to their homes outside Indian country would still have to be prosecuted under federal jurisdiction. The act also does not allow tribes to prosecute those who assault children. Thus with all these exceptions, VAWA is not perfect and still needs revision by the U.S. government. Not to mention the adoption of VAWA in tribes has not been easy.​ It's involved hiring more attorneys and judges and paying for more prison beds. Those high costs have discouraged many tribes from signing on and thus only a fraction of the country's tribes have adopted it (Edwards, NPR). This is yet another problem in the system, but this time it's tribes who need to step up and adopt VAWA in order to make a change, because the tribal government themselves should show just as much willingness to fix the situation. Many tribal governments have not undertaken initiatives to address gender violence, incorrectly thinking that the federal government is adequately addressing it (Smith 42). ​The tribes ​need​ to develop Native infrastructure that addresses violence while calling for stricter accountability of federal law enforcement to Native women.

There is also a program called The Tribal SAUSA pilot program. It is a way to begin transferring jurisdiction to Indian tribes over crimes committed by non-Indians, while ensuring that the interests, concerns, and the rights of Indian victims and non-Indian offenders are represented (Griffith 818). The program also provides a way for federal and tribal attorneys to work together. This program is a great way to rebuild trust between U.S. government and tribes while also ensuring correct jurisdiction over the complicated legal status of these crimes.

There are many factors contributing to the disproportionately high rate of violence against Native women, all of them being side effects of years of marginalization, exploitation, and violence by the colonizers and then U.S. government. The best way to fix this problem is to have cooperation and communication between federal, state, and tribal governments. The U.S. government needs to publicly address and prioritize the problem of violence against Native women. In her article on the topic, Jessica Greer suggests "​the United States should ratify international treaties for the rights of women and indigenous people to solidify its public commitment to fighting violence against women and to send a clear message that it is prioritizing efforts to protect American Indian women from violence." Congress should also not pass laws that affect tribal governments authority without their consent, like they have in the past. When it comes time to reauthorize VAWA, there needs to be strides to fix the loopholes still contained in it, such as disregarding the perpetrator if they are not "close" with the victim. It is essential that the U.S. government continues to conduct research regarding SAUSA in order to consider expanding it. Regarding the tribes, tribal law enforcement needs more training and funding in order to effectively respond to violent crimes against women and develop a stronger infrastructure.

If all these steps are taken by both parties, then perhaps this high rate of violence can be put to an end. These unproportionally high rates should be unacceptable to anyone who believes in equal protection for all. If there is to be a change, there must be a recognition of the problem and strive to fix it, on all sides. Native American's problems cannot be ignored any longer, especially when they all stem from centuries of abuse by the white man. We must come together to amend for past mistakes and end the violence against Native American women.

Works Cited

Burnette, Catherine. "Historical Oppression and Intimate Partner Violence Experienced by Indigneous Women in the United States: Understanding Connections." ​Social Service Review, ​vol. 89, no. 3, September 2015, pp.536-545, ​EBSCOhost.

Edwards, Melodie. "Native American Tribes Want To Close Loopholes In Violence Against Women Act." ​NPR​, NPR, 25 June 2018, Accessed 15 Oct. 2019.

Griffith, Jessica Greer. "Too Many Gaps, Too Many Fallen Victims: Protecting American Indian Women From Violence on Tribal Lands." ​University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, ​vol. 36, no. 3, 2015, p.807-818, ​EBSCOhost.

Halldin, Amber. "Restoring the Victim and the Community: A Look at the Tribal Response to Sexual Violence Commited by Non-Indians in Indian Country Through Non-Criminal Approaches." ​North Dakota Law Review​, vol. 84, no. 1, 2008, p.5, ​EBSOChost.

Helgesen, Elise. "Allotment of Justice: How U.S. Policy in Indian Country Perpetuates the Victimization of American Indians." ​University of Florida Journal of Law & Public Policy, vol. 22, no. 3, December 2011, pp.445-459, ​EBSCOhost.

Larkin, Jr., Paul J. and Luppino-Esposito, Joseph. "The Violence Against Women Act, Federal Criminal Jurisdiction, and Indian Tribal Courts." ​BYU Journal of Public Law, ​vol. 27, no. 1, Dec 2012, p.16, ​EBSCOhost.

Oppenheimer, Lauren. "Untangling the Courts Sovereignty Doctrine to Allow For Greater Respect of Tribal Authority in Addressing Domestic Violence." ​Maryland Law Review, vol. 76, no. 3, 2017, p.862, ​EBSCOhost.

Rosay, André B. "Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men." National Institute of Justice​, 1 June 2016, Accessed 15 Oct. 2019.

Smith, Andrea. "Decolonizing Anti-Rape Law and Strategizing Accountablility in Native American Communities." ​Social Justice​, vol. 37, no. 4, 2010, p.42, ​EBSCOhost.

U.S. Department of Justice. "Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and the Criminal Justice Response: What is known." 2008, p.39.

Weaver, Hillary N. "The Colonial Context of Violence: Reflections on Violence in the Lives of Native American Women." ​Journal of Interpersonal Violence,​ vol. 24, no. 9, Sep 2009, p.1544, ​EBSCOhost.

2010 Census Summary File 1, Table QT-P5


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