Sexual harassment in Indian Country is an inconvenient and deeply uncomfortable truth.
Most media coverage of sexual violence and harassment focuses on the high rates of non-Native perpetrators and Native victims. While important, these articles fail to reveal the equally troubling stories about Native perpetrators who target Native victims.
Framing Native peoples as victims and focusing on the fact that Native women are 2.5 times more likely than any other ethnicity in America to be sexually assaulted is a common thread in legacy media. The broader story, however, is decidedly messy and deeply human; 30-35 percent of perpetrators in sexual assaults against Native women are Native men.
Indian Country Today spent the past nine months investigating sexual harassment issues. In the process of reporting, we learned about the lack of accountability, and procedures for reporting harassment in tribal, nonprofit and federal government agencies. We also found high rates of unreported incidents, negative consequences for victims and a culture of protecting perpetrators.
This investigation has been a time of furtive, late-night phone calls from a vast cross section of women. Some are well-educated and lauded both in and outside of Indian Country; some are ordinary, hard working women laboring in obscurity. The alleged perpetrators are similar in their diversity. Some are employed at the highest levels of tribal and government leadership; some work in more prosaic jobs. They all, however, share attitudes of entitlement and impunity from the consequences for their behaviors.
Indian Country Today found that Native people and organizations, like their mainstream counterparts, are not immune from using the male privileges and protections of wealth, power, and social status to prey on the vulnerable.
Nor are they immune from the desire to cover up these unpleasant facts.
“The MeToo movement has skipped Indian Country,” said Amanda Takes War Bonnet, public education specialist for the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains.
Takes War Bonnet of the Oglala Lakota Nation said Native women don’t report sexual harassment or assault because they believe their communities won’t support them and little will be done.
“Constant racism, sexual and domestic violence, childhood trauma, lack of accountability from tribal law enforcement and court systems and not being believed if they do come forward has contributed to silencing Native women,” she said.
Although Native communities are working to address violence against women through greater compliance with the Violence Against Women Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act and creating better sexual violence laws, they aren’t necessarily working to address non-violent forms of abusive behavior such as sexual harassment in their own communities, according to Sarah Deer, a longtime activist for the rights of Indigenous women.
Deer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2014 in recognition for her work on the Violence Against Women Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act. She currently holds a joint appointment at the University of Kansas with the School of Public Affairs and Administration and the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Sexual harassment is considered a civil rights issue and includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the form of quid pro quo. This means if you accept my advance, I’ll reward you. If not, expect retaliation. It can also take the form of a hostile work environment that may include offensive jokes, threats, intimidation as well as offensive objects or pictures in the workplace.
Sexual assault is a criminal act and is usually physical; it involves any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient, according to the Department of Justice.
“Not everyone who sexually harasses people will become a rapist. But it creates an atmosphere of lack of accountability if we fail to call out those who sexually harass others,” Deer said. “Since so many of our women have been physically assaulted, we tend to minimize harassment. We tell ourselves that if we aren’t hit or raped, it’s not that bad, even though we feel unsafe and afraid to be alone with the perpetrator."
People may also fear negative fallout from airing the community’s dirty laundry, according to Deer.
“We’re already stereotyped as being dysfunctional; Native people may be fearful of adding to that perception by reporting harassment,” she said. “We don’t talk about this enough.”
Indeed, the barriers and repercussions to reporting both assault and harassment reach far and deep in Native communities; women have been effectively silenced for generations, especially when it comes to reporting their own.
During the course of our investigation, Indian Country Today learned that perpetrators include a vast spectrum of men. Some are among those who speak publicly about supporting the Violence Against Women Act and who join rallies denouncing the rise of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
They work at nonprofits with missions to serve women and children suffering from the trauma of child abuse. Survivors shared similar stories of organizations dismissing ongoing complaints about these men. One source who prefers to remain anonymous described how the director of women’s services at a Native family community organization ignored her repeated complaints about unwanted sexual touching and advances from an employee. The source, “J” was 17 years old at the time. Later the man was arrested for sexually assaulting several teenagers. All organizations contacted by Indian Country Today used similar language to describe their response to complaints of sexual harassment or assault.
It’s often said: “We have zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault.” Unfortunately, this declaration often represents the extent of their public policies.
The Institute of American Indian Arts Alumni Council released a public statement on the organization’s Facebook page on May 8 demanding that the tribal college investigate claims of sexual assault of a student by a staff member. The statement was signed by Alumni Council members Heidi K. Brandow, president, Tahnee Growing Thunder, Vice-President, Tristan Ahtone, Linley Logan and Kevin Locke.
The Institute of American Indian Arts is a tribal college located in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Indian Country Today contacted the accused staff member via telephone and email offering him an opportunity to respond to the Alumni Council’s and unidentified student’s allegations of sexual assault. He declined to provide a statement.
A student shared details of an April 9, 2019 alleged assault via Facebook that took place in the staff member’s office on the IAIA campus. According to the student, after asking her for a massage, the staff member forcibly pushed his hands under the woman’s clothing. “He hurt me physically and mentally. He did not have my consent,” she wrote. According to the student she didn’t make a formal complaint with school administrators because they ignored her two previous complaints about another IAIA staff member for sending inappropriate sexual tweets to students.
“I don’t feel that IAIA takes our safety seriously therefore I didn’t go through the school’s protocol,” she wrote.
Indian Country Today reached out to the student but she has not yet responded.
On Thursday May 9, students gathered at the dance circle on the institute’s campus as a show of support for the woman.
Students placed copies of the woman’s statement throughout the campus according to students Michael R.L. Begay and Juliana Brown Eyes.
A second institute employee was also named in the flyer and accused of sending students inappropriate text messages inquiring about their sexual and romantic lives.
According to a Facebook post on the Three Sisters Collective public page, both men accused in the flyer were recently involved in planning a campus event designed to bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and members of the LGBTQ community. Three Sisters Collective is a social and environmental justice organization based in Santa Fe.
Members of the Three Sisters Collective did not respond to Indian Country Today’s request for comment.
The second alleged perpetrator responded to an email from Indian Country Today seeking comment. “I haven’t sexually harassed anyone; I’m not under any criminal or any investigations or complaints here at IAIA.”
Eric Davis, director of Marketing and Communications at the institute responded via telephone on May 10 to our request for comment regarding how the college is handling the situation.
Davis read a statement issued by Institute of American Indian Arts President Robert Martin: “Today for the first time we learned of claims of sexual harassment and assault that allegedly happened one month ago. As soon as we learned of this alleged assault, we contacted law enforcement. IAIA takes all forms of sexual harassment and assault seriously. We will investigate in accordance with IAIA policies prohibiting harassment, assault and retaliation against students.”
In response to email questions about the second alleged perpetrator Davis wrote in an email message, “I am not at liberty to discuss Human Resources matters.”
The Associated Press reported that Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, Juan Rios, confirmed that an incident took place at the IAIA campus but that no one has been charged or arrested in the case. Rios would not comment further on the investigation.
According to Davis, the matter is confidential so he would not discuss any actions taken against the alleged perpetrator. “Victim counselors had a gathering with students on campus and have spoken to some of the students,” Davis said.
He said he didn’t know if counselors had spoken to the victim.
On May 13, 2019, Tusweca Studio published a video entitled “Stop the Silence IAIA!” in which 14 individuals state that they don’t feel safe at the school. Several said that the school’s lack of response to allegations of sexual assault and harassment contributed to the lack of safety on campus. At the 1 minute mark, one student said, “I do not think this behavior is normal; it should not be normalized. Us as students do have a voice and we do have the power to make change and make progress for past students, present and future students who attend the Institute of American Indian Arts.”
Tusweca Studio was founded by IAIA students Michael R.L. Begay and Juliana Brown Eyes. Tusweca is a Lakota word for dragonfly according to Brown Eyes. Begay recently won the 2019 Tribal College Journal’s Student Best Film Award for his original work “Lightening Boy.” Both filmmakers are enrolled in the IAIA cinema arts program.
During a phone interview with Indian Country Today both Brown Eyes and Begay described the process of making “Stop the Silence IAIA!”
“We were mad and hurt by the administration’s lack of response,” Brown Eyes said.
The victim is a close friend, according to the couple.
“We wanted to provide a safe space for students to provide their testimonies so we opened up our little studio space to them,” she said.
They filmed and edited the video over a nonstop period of 36 hours. “We forgot to eat,” Begay said.
When they learned that IAIA president Martin was hosting a roundtable discussion with students about the incident they rushed the editing process and ran over to the meeting barely in time to show the video to the president and students there.
“It had a lot of impact. The president could see with his own eyes how the school’s lack of concern upset the students,” Begay said.
Begay, who served as headman at the school’s recent powwow, organized a blanket dance in order to raise money to help the victim get home.
“We raised over $500.00 for her," he said. "The school didn’t provide her with anything."
The response to the incident has all been student led according to Begay and Brown Eyes.
“School security guards threatened people who were putting up the flyers describing the assault with expulsion; the guards ripped down the flyers,” Brown Eyes said.
The administration’s greatest concern seemed to center on containing legal fallout for the institution rather than on the victim’s and students’ well being according to Brown Eyes and Begay.
“Many students were triggered by reading the flyer and hearing about the incidents; they needed spiritual support,” Brown Eyes said.
The victim had to drive home alone, several states away, according to the couple. “We have been keeping in contact with her though, making sure she’s safe,” they said.
This is not the institute’s first experience dealing with allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
In February 2018, the college was painted by the sexual harassment scandal involving Sherman Alexie, a prominent Native author. Several women, including former IAIA faculty member Elissa Washuta described incidents of sexual harassment by Alexie to National Public Radio. According to Washuta, Alexie harassed her and tried to lure her into his hotel room for sex. Washuta claimed that school administrators failed to act after she reported the incidents. According to an article in the Albuquerque Journal, Davis didn’t remember Washuta’s allegations against Alexie but later noted that the school’s Title IX office reached out to Washuta after hearing about the incident. Alexie served as faculty mentor and consultant for the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at the Institute. The school has since dropped the writers name from the Sherman Alexie Scholarship renaming it the MFA Alumni Scholarship.
In August 2018, the National Congress of American Indians was roiled by its poor handling of charges of sexual harassment against staff attorney John Dossett. Women employees complained of leadership’s lack of response to repeated claims of harassment.
The National Congress of American Indians is the U.S’s oldest and largest intertribal organization. Founded in 1944, the nonprofit organization advocates for tribal governments with the federal government and works to develop consensus on national issues according to its website.
The scandal soon led to investigations of leadership’s handling of employee complaints of sexual harassment. Dossett was no longer employed in that role when Executive Director Jackie Pata was placed on administrative leave in October 2018. An ad hoc committee composed of members of NCAI’s executive committee then conducted a review. Pata resigned in February 2019. Findings from the ad hoc review have not been released publicly.
NCAI President Jefferson Keel wrote in a statement released in February 2019 via email to press and NCAI members, “Some of you have asked for more specific information, such as providing internal investigation findings and outcomes for review. But to comply with these requests would jeopardize those parties who have chosen privacy over publicity.”
NCAI press representatives did not respond to Indian Country Today’s recent request to see the ad hoc committee’s report.
The outing of men such as Alexie, several high level employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and harassment allegations within the National Congress of American Indians are slowly exposing a shameful open secret in Indian Country.
The series of recent scandals underscore a common, unfortunate human truth. Native people and organizations are not immune from using the privileges and protections of wealth, power, and social status to prey on people perceived as vulnerable.
Indeed, during the many phone calls made across the country to Native women, they all shared an overwhelming fear about losing their jobs, the chances for future employment, housing, social services for themselves and their families as well as the love, respect and support from close knit Native communities. They described tribal leaders who belittled them as women in public meetings, compared them to photos in pornographic magazines, suggesting they should model for the publications; others described receiving ongoing sexual propositions, sexually charged texts and social media messages as well as unwanted touching.
Many welcomed the opportunity to share their stories. Although talking helped ease their burdens a bit, few women held out much hope for justice. Caught in impossible situations, they shared their survival strategies, avoiding travel or being alone with perpetrators, arranging escape plans from work-related functions, ignoring inappropriate, demeaning comments and direct solicitations for sex and worse deciding not to report unwanted physical contact, from touching to assault.
All are united in a delicate and dangerous dance of remaining employed and safe in unpredictable and hostile environments.
(Cover photo: Illustration by Mary Annette Pember)
Correction: The National Congress of American Indians would only confirm that attorney John Dossett was no longer with the organization in October 2019. The story misstated his status.
Mary Annette Pember works as an independent journalist focusing on Indian issues and culture with a special emphasis on mental health and women’s health. Winner of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, and Indian Country Today. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com.