Amnesty International report

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Violence against Indian women is unabated

WASHINGTON - Amnesty International and four Native women gave a soul-destroying account of sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women on April 24, at a media conference that coincided with AI's release of the study ''Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA.''

If the report seemed sure to raise the question of why tribal jurisdictions should be maintained at all as ''a breeding ground for sexual predators,'' the women themselves raised no such issue. Sarah Deer, an attorney for the Tribal Law and Policy Institute and a survivor of sexual violence herself, said the only option worth pursuing is for tribal governments to protect their women through greater public awareness and more resources.

Historically, state and federal law enforcement have seldom placed the best interests of Indian women foremost, she said. ''Moreover, the authority of tribal governments to respond to these crimes has been greatly limited through the steady erosion of the sovereign authority and resource-based ability of Indian nations to protect women.''

The tapestry of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions in Indian country defies brief description to the uninitiated, but AI Executive Director Larry Cox did a good job of fitting the issues into a digestible capsule:

''Imagine if the daughter of a member of Congress was raped here in the District of Columbia but there was only one police officer on duty and, even if he had time to investigate, federal law prevented him from charging the suspect because he [the suspect] was white. Imagine that when the daughter sought help at the hospital, the nurses were not trained to use a forensic rape kit so they could not preserve any evidence. Imagine that prosecutors in the district could not try the suspect but instead had to rely on authorities from another jurisdiction to intervene. Imagine that those authorities failed to do so and the suspect walked free. Now imagine what would happen next - imagine the outcry in the media, the rush to convene congressional hearings, and the effort to ensure that such a travesty of justice never occurred again.

''We need just such an outcry for the indigenous women of our country.''

But ''Maze of Injustice'' focuses more on what typically does happen next with Native women - they clam up and return to their victimizer, convinced that to report rape is to invite retaliation. Some of them told AI researchers that they get no answers; others reported encountering an attitude that they're less than human.

AI's immediate solution is for American Indian and Alaska Native women to leave abusive relationships and not look back. ''Speak out - there are people out there who can help,'' said Jimmie Ross, an Oklahoma Indian. She has followed her own advice, but only after enduring vicious abuses. She now urges women not to put up with it as she did, no matter who says otherwise. ''My grandmother always told me, 'No matter what happens, you have to keep your family together.' I listened to her for years. I was only fifteen when I met my husband and didn't know any better. I never knew my father, and I wanted my daughters to have a real family with two parents. It was my place to push aside the abuse, no matter what he did, and keep running the house. That is what I stood on for years. But now I'm different - and I'm never going back to being the woman who was too afraid to leave.''

The statistics AI relied on in compiling ''Maze of Injustice'' are familiar from Department of Justice reports: American Indian and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in America, and more than one in three will be raped in their lifetime compared with one in five others. AI added an extensive literature review and field research from Oklahoma, Alaska and the Standing Rock reservation that straddles North and South Dakota. The sites were selected for ''specific jurisdictional characteristics'' that influence the response of local law enforcement to crimes of sexual violence.