Sarah Deer is having another big moment. She is one of only ten Native women to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in its 50-year history. In 2014 she was given the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” for her work to obtain justice for Native women who are victims of violence.
Deer, Muscogee Creek, is a modern-day woman warrior that has dedicated her life to ending violence against Native women. As an inductee to the 2019 class of “Women of the Hall,” she is in amazing company.
This year in Seneca Falls, NY, the birthplace of the American women’s rights movement, Deer is being honored shoulder to shoulder with a heady list of heavyweights. At the Del Lago casino in central New York, Deer is being celebrated with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, civil rights activist Angela Davis, academy award winner and activist Jane Fonda, molecular biologist and pioneering medical researcher Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal, composer Laurie Spiegel, Nicole Malachowski, a fighter pilot and pioneer in combat aviation, and high-profile women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred.
The National Women’s Hall of Fame is the oldest organization dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the achievements of great American women. Sarah Deer holds a highly distinguished place among nearly three hundred women who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame since the hall was established in 1969.
The day before the induction ceremony, held Saturday, September 14, 2019, in Tyre, NY, Deer had the opportunity to rub elbows with her fellow inductees. Humble and incredulous, Deer said, “I’m still in a surreal state of disbelief. I’m not sure what’s going on here.”
Deer said she was most thrilled to meet Justice Sotomayor, whom she thanked for being an advocate, a leader, and an inspiration to so many Hispanic women. Deer maintains the idea that she herself, an advocate, a leader, and an inspiration for many young Native women and men, seems completely lost on her.
“I get a little embarrassed,” Deer said, admitting she didn’t know she was being nominated or considered and has no idea who nominated her or how her name came up. “I don’t know that I belong in this group of people.”
Deer was selected by a nationwide panel of judges, experts from across the country from organizations and educational institutions for her work on the Violence Against Women Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act.
Deer is a professor of law at the University of Kansas with a joint appointment with the School of Public Affairs and Administration and the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2014 and her work has received national recognition from the American Bar Association and the Department of Justice.
Deer has accomplished much in her life, her book, The End and Beginning of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America won the Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award. Deer spearheaded the 2007 Amnesty International report “Maze of Injustice” which reframed the problem of sexual violence in Indian Country as an international human rights issue.
Deer worked on “Maze of Injustice” over the course of about two years, all the while in treatment and recovery from breast cancer. “I just knew the story needed to be told,” she said.
She was instrumental in the passage of two landmark pieces of federal legislation: the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 which increases the sentencing power of tribal courts and requires federal district attorneys to provide tribal courts with detailed information about cases under their jurisdiction that will not be prosecuted; and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which restored some of the authority that had stripped tribal courts of the power to prosecute violent offenders assaulting women or partners on tribal lands in 1978.
Deer started out as a theater major at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, but she soon dropped the theater and took up philosophy at the University of Kansas. Since an undergrad, she was always interested in reproductive justice and women’s health rights. At 20, in Lawrence, Kansas, she was a rape crisis advocate supporting survivors reporting assault and violent crimes. She was on the receiving end of the telephone line fielding calls from Native women suffering from trauma. It was hearing the countless searing stories of Native women’s distress from physical abuse, sexual violence, and crisis—at the university, at Haskell, and at home on the reservation—that changed the trajectory of her life.
She said of her early experience, “I knew there was injustice, but I didn’t know the extent of it."
Deer then went on to law school at Kansas and sought to know the Native women that were involved in Native women’s rights and justice issues. She came across the efforts of Tillie Black Bear, Sicangu, who is considered the grandmother of the battered Native women’s rights movement.
“Her story moved me,” said Deer. “Tillie should be here. Not me. There’s no doubt in my mind, she should be on this list.”
Tillie Black Bear founded the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society at Rosebud, the first battered women’s shelter on a reservation in the Lower 48. She founded the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, led the charge in building the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and led the efforts that ensured that the Violence Against Women’s Act included Indian tribes. Black Bear passed in 2014.
It is perhaps fitting though that Deer—who was inspired by Black Bear to join in the fight to end violence against Native women and carry forth the work that Black Bear started—would be honored for the work.
Deer said she never imagined that her life’s work would lead her to the Hall of Fame; she was just interested in getting the work done. “When I saw something unfair, I wanted to address it,” she said.
Indian Country Today asked Deer what being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame means to her.
“It means that the work I’m doing has received national recognition. It means that the issues I work on matter,” she said.
In her acceptance speech, Deer said, "Indigenous women were the first rape victims in the country's history. We need to address violence against Indigenous women because until Indigenous women are free of violence, no women are free."
Defending Native women’s rights and the lives of those who have been victims of physical and sexual violence is serious and compelling, but also dark and disturbing. The statistics are not widely known outside of Indian Country.
Deer’s research findings report that 84% of Native women will be victims of violence at some time in their lives. 56% of Native women will be victims of some form of sexual violence.
“I rattle off data and people just stop; they have a hard time digesting the numbers,” said Deer. “People have no idea.”
Deer says that she has become numb to the statistics herself. In a talk at Arizona State University, she said that South Africa may be the only place that rivals Indian Country in terms of rape frequency. “You have to emotionally distance yourself from the work because it’s just so much. It has a profound impact on you.”
In her book The Beginning and End of Rape, Deer examines the frequency rates of violence against Native women. She has scrutinized victimization surveys since 1999 to identify and articulate the scope of the problem. “I’ve never seen a study yet that doesn’t indicate that Native people aren’t experiencing the highest rates of violent crimes,” said Deer.
“What we do know is very distressing. Why are the rates as high as they are? There’s generational trauma, there’s poverty, there’s unemployment, there’s all these social factors,” said Deer. “But I focus on the legal analysis and I believe a big part of it is that the legal system has failed Native women and people.”
Today the impact on Native communities is dramatic. The prevalence of sexual violence is pervasive. Deer has traveled to more than 60 Native communities and talked with scores of Native women. “When I would ask women about their experience as a sexual assault victim, they would say: ‘Well, which time?’ It’s that pervasive,” said Deer. “A lot of people talk about healing for people who have been sexually assaulted, I like the word justice better. Native women deserve justice.”
Deer has focused on bringing about reforms in federal law, but notes changing federal law is a slow process. “We need this done yesterday. We have to beg Congress for crumbs,” she said. She says that what really needs to happen to make a dent in this crisis is for tribal nations to pick up the work themselves. “Tribal nations are where the true change can happen. And it is beginning to happen in certain places. We need to ask: ‘What can we do on our own terms?’” she said.
“Hopefully, with the strength and resolve of some women in these communities, change will take hold.”
Change is what Deer is pushing for. “I hope that this honor will amplify the voices of Native women who have been victimized and shed light on their lives.”
Deer is currently working on a study, interviewing 50 Native people who have suffered sexual abuse. She is asking the critical question: What does justice look like to you? What she has already found is that two out of 50 victims do not see justice. She wants to see a strengthening of law for people who commit crimes of abuse and violence.
“Justice doesn’t tie to the criminal system,” Deer said. “In our communities, people get away with it all the time.”
In many cases, Deer says, victims just want acknowledgment of what happened to them. For herself and others working to aid victims, “We also want to make women strong again.”
Deer acknowledges that the stories are devastating and can take a toll. Her next project is a book about strong Native women who are changing the world. She is going to focus on “high profile” and intelligent women who are inspirational.
Deer herself falls into that category.
“We have two Native women in Congress now and that gives me hope. They’re championing issues and are leading the charge on what we hope to accomplish for Native women in Indian Country,” said Deer.
She has a message for young Native women and girls:
“Dream. Dream big. Don’t let your circumstances dictate your future. Find mentors. Connect, reach out. Find others to help guide you. Study chemistry, study STEM, study law, dance, whatever speaks to you,” she said. “I want more Native women to be in the Hall of Fame.”
Leslie Logan, Seneca, is a writer and PR consultant that has written for Indian Country Today, the National Museum of the American Indian, Aboriginal Voices and Indigenous Woman. She is the former communications director for the Seneca Nation and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.