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Sexual Assault in Native American Women: A Guide to Support and Resources



Native American women face the highest rate of sexual assault and rape as compared to any other demographic in the United States.


And the aftereffects of such assaults can devastate both the individual and the Native American community as a whole.


Though the damage of such actions can never be reversed, Native American women do have resources available to them to support, educate, and assist them as they heal.

The Scope of Sexual Assault Against Native American Women


Sexual assault, and violent attacks in general, are far too common against Native American women in the United States.


In fact, a 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) reported that 56.1% of Indian American and Alaska Native women experience sexual assault in their lifetime, and 84.3% experience violence in some form.


More statistics on Native American women, violence, and sexual assault include:

  • 34% of Native Alaskan and Indian American women will be raped in their lifetime.

  • 17% of Native Alaskan and Indian American women report being stalked during their lifetime.

  • Native American women are murdered at a rate of up to 10 times the national average on some reservations.

  • Indian Americans and Native Alaskans are 2.5 times as likely to be the victim of a violent crime than any other race.

  • 71% of Native Alaskan and Indian American women who are raped or sexually assaulted report that they knew their assailant prior to their attack.


These numbers are especially alarming when compared to the rates for African Americans, Hispanics, and non-White Hispanics, which are consistently lower in all areas.


Who Commits Sexual Assault Against Native Women?

A 2013 report from the National Congress of American Indians found that in the majority of sexual assault cases against Native women — 67% in fact — the perpetrator is a non-Native.

This number of cases of sexual assault can be further broken down into 57% White, 10% Black, and 33% Other.


In the case of violent, non-sexual assault against Native women, the numbers show similar patterns, with 63% of perpetrators being non-Native.

In both the cases of assault and sexual assault against Native American women, more than half of the perpetrators of the sexual acts are White males.


Why Are Sexual Assault Rates Higher for Native American Women?


The evidence is clear that Native American women experience sexual assault at much higher rates than the average American woman, and there are several reasons behind this fact.


Interracial Violence

Interracial violence plays a large role in high sexual assault rates against Native American women, as most of the offenders are white partners and white non-partners.

America, sadly, has a long history of interracial violence since its founding, much of it targeted at the Native American population, as they were the first group to challenge the “whiteness” of the new White Americans.


Removal of Tribal Jurisdiction

Tribal jurisdiction can be an incredibly complex process, with outcomes that are heavily dependent on the location of the crime and the Native status of the perpetrator and victim.

In some cases, the Tribe may not have authority over a crime at all, making it harder for women to seek justice and less likely to try to find help, further victimizing the victims of sexual assault.


Lower Rates of Law Enforcement on Native Lands

It is commonplace to find lower rates of law enforcement on Native lands, and to make matters worse, law enforcement officers often have to patrol very large expanses of land.

In fact, when compared to the national average of one law enforcement officer per 286 people, an Amnesty International report found that there is only one officer per 524 people on tribal land.

Because of a smaller number of officers being responsible over a larger portion of land, it is not surprising that many crimes on tribal lands are never reported or even known about.


Lack of Local Tribal Solutions for Sexual Assault

There is an overall lack of local tribal solutions for sexual assault, and cases tend to get handed off, then ignored for a very long time or mishandled.

Many times when this happens victims end up dropping their cases to avoid the frustration or the pain of waiting for long periods of time while they are trying to heal and move on.


Lack of Tribal Criminal Justice Infrastructure

Tribal criminal justice systems also have limited resources and receive very limited funding from the federal government in order to improve.

What occurs instead is an internal criminal justice infrastructure that lacks standards and organization, and in which women do not feel safe going forward with their stories of sexual assault.


Lack of Enforcement of Tribal Laws

Even when prosecution takes place and is executed by tribal authorities, laws and sentences may not be enforced, and in some cases not even recognized, outside of tribal lands.

This presents a major problem when most perpetrators are non-Native, and tribal women do not feel protected on tribal land or on non-tribal land.


Proximity of Reservations to Sexual Assault Exam Offices

The same Amnesty International report as cited above found that only 30.7% of Native American census-designated tribal lands were within an hour’s drive of a facility offering sexual assault examination services.

This lack of proximity to appropriate help and medical attention, as well as a potential lack of transportation that many Native American women in poverty face, further contribute to higher rates of sexual assault in Native Americans.


Risk Factors for Sexual Violence Against Native Women

It is possible that Native American women possess several characteristics and risk factors which make them more likely to experience sexual violence.


Risk factors for sexual violence against Native women include:

  • A history of colonization: a history of crimes against indigenous people by White men can be traced back hundreds of years, as rape was often used as a tool of power and dominance.

  • Issues with the tribal court system: sexual assault cases can be incredibly complex and may deter women from taking action, especially if the perpetrator is a non-Native.

  • Limited resources: after experiencing sexual assault, Native American women have limited access to medical care or mental health care and may need to travel long distances for help or for access to a sexual assault nurse examiner.

  • Poverty: approximately one-fourth of all Native American women are living in poverty, which is considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a major risk factor for sexual assault.

  • Inequality among genders: while Native American women are often respected in their tribes, they are usually not given equal access to educational, occupational, or political opportunities.

  • Revictimization: Native American women who were the victims of sexual abuse as children are more likely to be revictimized as adults.


Types of Sexual Violence Against Native American Women

There are many forms and degrees of sexual violence. Here are some of the most common types of sexual violence that Native American women experience.


Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is defined as any unwanted sexual contact, but it covers an extremely wide range of incidences.


Examples of sexual assault include:

  • Rape and attempted rape

  • Date rape

  • Unwanted or inappropriate touching

  • Child sexual abuse

  • Exposing one’s genitals to another

  • Sexual harassment and threats


Intimate Partner Sexual Violence

Sexual violence does not have to be between strangers, and is in fact very common among intimate partners.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 39% of American Indian and Alaskan Native women will experience intimate partner sexual violence during their life.

Furthermore, sexual assault can also happen at the hands of a friend, coworker, or authority figure.


Incest

Incest is a sexual relationship between two closely related family members, and it is illegal in the United States and many other countries.

Some Native American groups delayed letting go of this practice, and it is not entirely uncommon for Native American women to experience sexual assault at the hands of a family member.


Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault

Drug-facilitated sexual assault, also known as predator rape, is a type of sexual assault in which the perpetrator uses a victim’s intoxicated state to their advantage in order to enact a sexual assault.


This type of assault is where the term “date rape drugs” comes from, as perpetrators of this type of assault often intentionally give their victim alcohol or drugs. This makes it easier for the perpetrator to carry out the assault later on.


A similar type of assault can occur when a perpetrator takes advantage of a victim with cognitive disabilities who cannot properly give consent.


Stalking

Stalking is receiving attention from someone that is unwanted and persistent to the point where the victim feels scared, anxious, and harassed.

It is important to note that stalking is considered a form of sexual assault even if no physical contact between the victim and perpetrator takes place, as it is considered harassment and a precursor to assault.


How Does Sexual Violence Affect Native American Women?

Sexual violence can affect Native American women in several ways, and some of the effects can last for the rest of their lives.


Physical Effects

Sexual violence can have numerous physical effects on a woman in both the short term and long term, depending on the extent of her physical injuries.


Physical effects of sexual violence include:

  • Pain

  • Infertility

  • Insomnia

  • Digestive problems

  • Urinary tract infections

  • Painful intercourse or sexual activity with future partners


Another serious potential consequence of sexual assault is unwanted pregnancy, which can further complicate the life of rape survivor.


Effects on Housing or Employment

Poverty is recognized as a major risk factor for sexual assault, and women in this situation are likely to also struggle with housing and employment.

Because sexual assault is also considered to be a risk factor for unemployment and homelessness, a cycle is thus created that Native American women can easily become trapped in.


Psychological Health Effects

Some of the worst effects of sexual assault are those that are unseen and that women carry with them psychologically for many years after.


Psychological health effects of sexual violence include:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Panic attacks

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Substance use disorders

  • Eating disorders

  • Body dysmorphia


Emotional Effects

The emotional effects of sexual violence and trauma are deep and complex.

One study that surveyed Native American women sexual assault survivors found that half of them had attempted suicide in the years since their assault.


Emotional effects of sexual violence include:

  • Feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness

  • Irritability and anger toward others

  • Lack of trust in others, particularly members of the opposite sex

  • Social withdrawal and isolation from loved ones

  • Strained personal or intimate relationships

  • Suicidal thoughts


How to Help a Native Sexual Assault Survivor

There are a few ways you can help if you know someone who is a survivor of Native sexual assault.


1. Listen, Offer Support, and Help Them Report the Crime

If you have a loved one who is a Native sexual assault survivor, the best thing you can do is simply to listen to them and offer support and help where you can.

Support could include offering a safe place or transportation if they choose to report the crime.

Be prepared, however, for the woman to say no to your help. Furthermore, if she prefers not to report the crime, that is her choice, and it is best not to put pressure or strain on her.


2. Seek Resources for Sexual Violence

You can also help your loved one to locate medical care and other supportive resources that may be helpful to them during this time.

Keep in mind, some of these services are not offered directly on tribal land or reservations and you may have to travel to utilize them.


Resources for survivors of sexual violence include:

  • Individual counseling

  • Group counseling

  • Family counseling

  • Peer support groups

  • Safe houses and women’s shelters


3. Allow Them to Heal at Their Own Pace

Never put pressure on someone to finish the healing process before they are ready, or to participate in treatment or other forms of help before they are ready to do so.

Everyone heals at their own pace and uses their own coping mechanisms that work for them. As long as she is not hurting herself or anyone else, let her heal at her own pace.


Treatments for Native Women Who Have Been Sexually Assaulted

The damage of sexual assault can never be undone, but Native American women can begin to heal and regain hope through several types of therapy or treatment.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) therapy can be effective when treating sexual assault victims. CBT helps sexual assault survivors understand the patterns behind their negative thoughts and behaviors following their assault.

This type of therapy is effective in treating many types of mental health and behavioral health disorders, as well as treating survivors of trauma.


Trauma-Focused CBT

Trauma-focused CBT is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that is specifically for children, teens, and families who have survived trauma.

This type of therapy often uses a combination of individual therapy and family therapy and is usually provided in a program for a set number of weeks and typically a minimum of eight sessions.


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDT)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDT) is a type of therapy that studies a person’s eye movements and uses this information to treat their PTSD.

Many people like this type of therapy for processing trauma, because it does not require them to speak in-depth about what happened to them.


Prolonged Exposure Therapy

Prolonged exposure therapy is another type of CBT, but one which takes on a more gradual approach to trauma and memories.

Many people use avoidance as a main coping mechanism when it comes to sexual assault, but this can actually do damage in the long-term.

Exposure therapy, on the other hand, can teach women to gradually face their fears at a rate that feels safe and comfortable for them.


Group Therapy

Group therapy has proven to be very effective for victims of sexual assault, giving them a chance to share their stories in a safe environment with others who share similar experiences.

For Native American women who are in more isolated locations or who do not have access to transportation, there are online support groups and forums that can help.


Medications

Medications can sometimes be helpful when treating Native American women who are recovering from sexual assault trauma.

The types of medications used often include anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants, as well as sleep aids if the woman is experiencing sleep disturbances as a result of her assault.


Alternative Therapy

Alternative therapy can describe any type of therapy or treatment that is non-traditional or non-standard in Western medicine practices.

For sexual assault and trauma, alternative therapies can include art and music therapy, adventure therapy, yoga and meditation, and accupuncture.

For Native American women, alternative therapies can also be prayer and group healing ceremonies.


Traditional Healing Methods

Many Native American victims of sexual assault have strong ties to their culture and would prefer to heal through methods that are traditional to their tribe.

Oftentimes these practices are undertaken with the guidance of a tribal doctor or traditional healer.


Traditional Native healing methods include:

  • Group or individual prayer

  • Cleansing ceremonies or rituals

  • Song and dance performances

  • Traditional plant medicine

  • Smudging (purification through smoke)


Tribal doctors can usually refer women to healthcare providers if they need medical care beyond what they can provide.


Legislation for Protection of Violence Against Native American Women

In the past couple of decades, there have been a few laws and Acts passed in the aim of helping Native American women.


Key laws and Acts that protect Native women against violence include:

  • Tribal Law and Order Act (2010): this law, signed by Barack Obama, was created to strengthen tribal courts and law enforcement, and placed a special emphasis on reducing crime and violence against Native American women.

  • Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013): this Act included an important provision that protected Native American women against acts of domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protection orders perpetrated by non-Indians.

  • Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022 (VAWA 2022): this Act further extended the coverage of the 2013 Act to provide specific protection against child violence, sexual violence, sex trafficking, obstruction of justice, and stalking.


Turning the Tides: Improving Protection for Native American Women From Sexual Violence

If certain recommendations are followed and actions are taken, protection for Native American women across the United States can be expanded and improved.


Improving Tribal Criminal Infrastructure

In 2010, CIRCLE (Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement) Project researchers, as part of the National Institute of Justice, published suggestions for ways that tribal criminal infrastructure could be improved.


Key findings and ways that tribal criminal infrastructure can be improved include:

  • Focus on long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes.

  • Enforce criminal justice programs that are culturally legitimate.

  • Eliminate political bias within tribal infrastructure.

  • Improve community and social service partnerships.

  • Create a clear timeframe for when changes will be implemented.


Enforcing Tribal Prosecution Outside Native Lands

Tribal governments currently do not have the power to prosecute non-Natives for crimes that occur on tribal territory.

There have, however, been recent improvements, as the Supreme Court ruled in a 2021 case that tribal police officers can search and temporarily detain non-Natives on tribal land until they can be transported to federal or state detainment.


Prosecuting Sexual Violence Crimes at Higher Rates

According to a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) survey, up to 67% of violent crimes against Native American women, including sexual crimes, go unprosecuted.

By lowering this number and improving outcomes for Native American women, more will likely feel comfortable coming forward to report assault.


Resources for Native Women Facing Sexual Assault or Violence

It is important that Native women facing sexual assault or violence know that they are not alone and that help is available to them.


Resources for Native American Women

There are several resources available to Native American women who have been victims of any kind of sexual violence.


Resources for Native American women facing sexual assault or domestic violence include:

  • National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center: a valuable resource for Native women who have been victims of violence, this organization provides advocacy as well as technical training and assistance.

  • Red Women Rising: an organization dedicated to increasing awareness and advocacy for Native American victims of sexual violence and domestic violence.

  • StrongHearts Native Helpline: a 24/7 free and confidential helpline to help Native women recognize the signs of abuse and seek help, this helpline offers both text and voice call options.


Resources for Victims of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence

There are also more general resources available to women who are survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.


Resources for women facing sexual assault or domestic violence include:

  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: victims of sexual assault can call this hotline to speak with a trained representative who can help them find support services and service providers in their area, as well as connect them to other resources.

  • National Sexual Violence Resource Center: this organization provides numerous resources for victims of sexual violence, and also offers directories on their website for support organizations and crisis centers.

  • VictimConnect Resource Center: a referral helpline operated by the National Center for Victims of Crime, the Victim Assistance Specialists who assist callers are extensively trained and can provide emotional support and information in addition to referrals.


Published: 12 September 2023

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