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Why Stalking Is a Critical Issue in Indian Country

For days after their emotional breakup, Sharla’s ex-boyfriend called her more than 50 times a day, pleading with her to take him back. She avoided his calls, but that further agitated him, and he eventually came looking for her. In the next two months, he rammed his car into hers, then pulled her from the wrecked car to say their breakup was driving him crazy. He showed up drunk and belligerent at pow wows and private parties Sharla was at, “like a monster out of the dark,” she says, yelling and making threats while friends tried to shield her.

(For Terri Hansen's feature on stalking, click here.)

Terrified by his erratic behavior, Sharla quit college and took refuge five states away, at what she thought was the safest place in the world—her parents’ home. Weeks passed, and things seem to stabilize as she pondered a new life, but the first weekend her parents were out of town, Sharla awoke in the middle of the night to find her former boyfriend standing over her in the dark—and this time there was no one to help her.

Sadly, Sharla is not alone. American Indian women in the United States are stalked at double the rates experienced by white women, according to several studies. One in every 12 women have been stalked in their lifetimes, and 31 percent of those women have been sexually assaulted by their stalker, according to the 1998 Department of Justice report “Stalking in America: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey.”

Native women reported the highest rates of stalking, with at least 17 percent reporting that they were stalked in their lifetimes, compared to 8.2 percent of white women, 6.5 percent of African American women, and 4.5 percent of Asian–Pacific Islander women, the report said.

The updated number is even higher, according to Dr. Venida Chenault, the vice president of academic affairs at Haskell Indian Nations University and author of Weaving Strength, Weaving Power: Violence and Abuse Against Indigenous Women. “I’ve done a couple of studies on violence and abuse with Native women, and in a 2004 tribal college sample, 26.8 percent reported being stalked. A second study in 2009 with women from a Midwestern tribe indicated that 35.5 percent had been stalked,” Chenault said. “Violence against Indian women is without doubt an attack on tribal women, but it also represents a continued assault on the traditional cultures of tribal peoples that maintain very different philosophies about the power, place and value of indigenous women.”

Most tribes do not have specific stalking laws, said Sarah Deer, a Muscogee Creek attorney and law professor at the University of Kansas who co-authored the report “Tribal Legal Code Resource: Sexual Assault and Stalking Laws, a Guide for Drafting or Revising Victim-Centered Tribal Laws Against Sexual Assault and Stalking” while working at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute. “In 1999, approximately 21 tribes had passed codes that address stalking,” Deer said. “Those that do have a stalking statute may not have updated their statute in years, and the methods that a stalker can use to track his victim have substantially changed in the past 10 years.

“Today, stalking via the Internet is common, installation of surveillance software on computers is possible, global position systems are available, and secret video cameras are now affordable. Generally, laws have not kept up with the technology.”