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Jennings: The women of Turtle Island

In 1901, Clara Zetkin, leader of the Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party of Germany, championed the idea of Women’s International Day. She proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women’s Day – to press for their demands.

The conference of more than 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval and thus International Women’s Day was the result.

For International Women’s Day March 8, I would like to recognize first women, who are so rarely mentioned in popular media and continue to struggle for equal rights, equal opportunities and be free from sexual violence.

Many ethnographic accounts from the 17th and 18th centuries reveal that Native American social structures were matriarchal – children belonged to the mother’s clan, women spoke at council meetings and women had the right to vote well before their European counterparts. Rape and wife beating were almost unknown previous to white contact. Indian societies empowered women and revered them for their life giving force. Today, the story is much different.

For International Women’s Day March 8, I would like to recognize first women, who are so rarely mentioned in popular media and continue to struggle for equal rights, equal opportunities and be free from sexual violence.

According to Justice Department statistics, Native American or Alaska Native women suffer sexual violence at disproportionately high levels – 2.5 times higher than for non-Native women in the United States. There is also evidence that indigenous women are more likely than other women to be brutalized by their attackers. In order to end sexual violence against indigenous women, we must understand why it exists in Indian country as well as off reservations today and assess our current challenges in addressing the issue.

Sexual assault on indigenous women by non-Indian men can be traced to the colonial period. Throughout the 1600s, Native lands were confiscated all across Turtle Island (the North American continent). The rape of indigenous women often converged with acts of war on Indian nations. At the cessation of war, indigenous women remained victims of sexual violence, including during the Long Walk and the Trail of Tears. Four centuries later, not much has changed. According to statistics by the Department of Justice, 86 percent of reported sexual assaults against Native American and Alaska Native women are committed by non-Indian men.

When sexual assaults are reported, federal law enforcement agents often fail to bring non-Indian offenders to justice. Federal law prohibits Native tribes from prosecuting non-Natives. Determining which justice system (federal, state or tribal) has jurisdiction over the crime is a complex maze and results in significant delays in the investigation. Moreover, when a case of sexual violence by a non-Indian is finally brought to federal or state prosecutors, the case may never be brought to trial due to lack of time and resources. The impunity granted to offenders causes many cases to go unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted.

In addition, the under-funding of tribal law enforcement prevents adequate criminal investigations. Federal funding for registered Native Americans is distributed among some 562 tribal governments across the country. The under-financing of police staff and tribal courts leads to gaps in law enforcement. Often crime reports are neither complete nor accurate.

IHS facilities are also critically under-funded. Due to the lack of trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners at IHS facilities who can provide forensic exams and gather essential evidence, victims often fail to receive adequate and timely exams or, worse, receive no exams at all. Without forensic evidence, victims may never see their case prosecuted.

Amnesty International’s report did not include the unique problems for bi-racial and tri-racial Native women, but it is important to recognize the additional barriers they face. Unlike Natives in other parts of the country, east coast Native women are predominantly mixed bloods, meaning they have either Indian and white, or Indian and black ancestry (bi-racial), or Indian, white and black ancestry (tri-racial).

However, historically, Indians never saw this as a dilution of culture. With the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 came the reclassification of mixed-race Indians on census records, birth certificates and marriage licenses based on the “one-drop rule.” The one-drop rule states that any person having African ancestry, no matter how remote, is considered black. This racial classification was often based on phenotype – skin color, facial features and hair texture. In terms of health service, victims of sexual assault who are mixed-blood are not recognized as Indian, but either “white” or “black” and their multicultural reality is not considered in intervention and treatment methods. The approach to healing for mixed-race Indians must be holistic, inclusive of their bi-racial and tri-racial and Indian identity.

What is being done? Amnesty International issued a report April 24, 2007, entitled “Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA,” contending that the federal government had a legal responsibility to ensure protection of the rights and well-being of Native American and Alaska Native people. Women in Indian country are now being heard in the Senate.

Recently, landmark legislation was introduced: The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2008, which addresses the jurisdictional problems faced by tribal authorities. However, “[W]e now need Congress to follow through and ensure that this legislation is strengthened and passed,” said Renata Rendon, advocacy director for Amnesty International. “Lawmakers must strive to increase support for this act, improve its content through meaningful dialogue with Native leaders and advocates, and ensure its impact is actually felt.”

What can you do? Donate to tribal and Native community organizations to develop outreach programs that are culturally appropriate from within Native communities. In Rhode Island you can donate to The Rhode Island Indian Council’s Domestic Assault Prevention Program, The Narragansett Indian Tribe Health Care Services and the Nuweetoon School’s Health and Wellness Program.

Julianne Jennings is a Nottoway Cheroenhaka and adjunct professor at Eastern Connecticut State University.