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Incredible injustice for indigenous women

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Editor's note: The following was named Best Editorial of 2007 by the Native American Journalists Association at its annual awards banquet July 26. It was originally published in Vol. 26, Iss. 47. Indian Country Today presents it again in appreciation and acknowledgment of those who work tirelessly toward justice for Indian girls and women.

In many creation stories, a woman was the first being to walk Mother Earth. In honor and reverence of this first woman, all matters of import were bestowed upon her daughters and granddaughters. Throughout history, indigenous women bore and supported life, tended to sustenance and medicines, brought forth leaders and themselves led nations. And so it is a sorrowful time, then, when we are confronted with painful reminders of a long history of the subjugation of indigenous peoples by systematically degrading women.

''From the oldest to the youngest, Native women are disrespected and treated in the most humiliating fashion, living and dying without justice or the knowledge that their granddaughters will live free of the violence they experienced.'' This passage, taken from testimony by Sacred Circle on the Violence Against Women Act, helps breathe life into the devastating statistics at the center of a groundbreaking report on violence against indigenous women.

Amnesty International's 113-page report, ''Maze of Injustice - The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA,'' released April 24, [2007], asserts that the U.S. government has ''created a complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that often allows perpetrators to rape with impunity,'' and that these crimes are ''compounded by failures at every level of the justice system.''

American Indian and Alaska Native women are nearly three times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. According to the Department of Justice, nearly 90 percent of the reported cases of rapes and sexual assault of Native women are committed by non-Native men. It is a staggering legacy for women to ''fully expect to be raped,'' as one elder stated in the report, because they are Indian.

The report contains interviews with courageous survivors and advocates, including stories of abuse and injustice so vivid, the mind does not want to believe they are true. Each story illustrates why so many survivors describe their experiences seeking justice as being raped ''all over again.'' Incompetent medical personnel, non-responsive or slow-moving law enforcement, conflicting jurisdictions and underlying racism that affects court proceedings are common obstacles.

The U.S. government's chronic underfunding of tribal justice systems has critically undermined efforts to protect Native women from this terrible fate. The federal government's ''official indifference'' remains a major contributor to the marginalization and dehumanization of indigenous women. If any shame is due, it is to the United States for allowing this ethnic terrorism to persist.

We must resist silence and the notion that sexual violence is a private matter to be buried and, if possible, forgotten.

''What we don't acknowledge, we carry with us,'' said Denise Morris of the Alaska Native Justice Center at the report launch in Washington, D.C. Because of the stigma carried by survivors, rape and sexual assault against Indian women is an insidious weapon - one act of violence can poison generations of families. The cycle of violence and silence must end; let this report be an impetus for conversations in families, communities and national organizations.

It is an uphill battle, but there is hope and meaningful help. Among the many individuals and outreach organizations providing support for women and communities are Clan Star Inc.; Sacred Circle National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women, a project of Pine Ridge's Cangleska Inc.; Mending the Sacred Hoop Technical Assistance Project; and the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women. These campaigns helped improve VAWA. A new version was reauthorized in 2005 and included a Tribal Title (Title IX) for the first time, a historic recognition by the federal government of the perpetration of violence against Native women. It is not a solution, but nonetheless an instrument of change.

Increasing the safety of Indian women has been a priority of these groups, and we salute their continuing efforts. But it is the brave women who shared their stories of survival, frustration and determination for ''Maze of Injustice'' who deserve Indian country's highest praise. They spoke with dignity for themselves and for the countless other women who could not: a few speaking out for the many.

Indigenous peoples cannot erase the past; instead, we must fight to ensure our future generations of women are safe, respected and free from violence. To honor our first woman, we must protect the next ones.