Confronting sexual violence against Native women

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Tribal nations across the state and the country are battling a host of social issues: alcoholism, homelessness, unemployment. But there's one issue, according to Sarah Deer, that needs to be addressed first: Rape.

"When we look at why people drink, or why people don't work, or why people are homeless — all of these social challenges that tribal governments have been struggling with often have at the backdrop rape," Deer said.

Deer is a professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, and a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma. She is a past recipient of the MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and the author of "The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America."

She joined MPR News' Tom Weber to discuss her book, and the barriers to addressing rape on reservations.

Throughout her book, Deer uses the word "rape," instead of other terms.

"I think terms like 'sexual assault' and 'sexual abuse' tend to sanitize the crime, and they also frame it as a sexual issue," Deer said. "I think 'rape' reframes it as a violence issue and a political issue."

The statistics for how many Native women experience sexual violence continue to grow.

"As Native women, we are the most raped people in the nation by far," Deer said. "Recently new data has come out from the CDC that says over half of Native women have experienced some form of sexual violence. It's actually become more common to be raped than not to be raped as Native women."

One of the issues that has led to the rise in sexual crime is the inability of tribal nations to prosecute offenders who do not belong to the tribe, Deer said.

"You have to have some sort of criminal justice intervention that will resolve the perpetrators' behavior and provide support for the victims," Deer said. "Tribal nations for millennia did this well. Tribal nations had the power to deal with these crimes and they did a fairly good job. ... Fast forward to 2015, and we've had a series of laws that have systematically removed the authority from tribal nations so they have only limited authority to respond to rape."

In particular, Deer cited a 1978 Supreme Court decision "which says that tribal nations cannot prosecute a non-Indian for any crime — that would include murder, child sexual abuse, rape, what have you. If you're a non-Indian and you commit a crime on a reservation, the tribe does have the authority to prosecute."

That leaves cases in the hands of state or federal courts, depending on the reservation.

"If you want to be a federal prosecutor, you want to take on Enron and terrorism and a drug trafficking ring. You don't want to take on a rape case that happened 3 hours away," Deer said. "We've had a problem with the culture of the federal government where they just don't take action when the crime is reported."

To hear the full discussion with Sarah Deer about sexual violence against Native women and possible solutions for the issue, use the audio player above.

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