Two Native women in Congress isn't enough to end the systemic violence Native girls face

Every level of government has failed to protect communities from violence or support their deteriorating social infrastructure.
Image: Rep. Deb Haaland speaks at a reception hosted by the Congressional Native American Caucus in Washington on Jan. 3, 2019.
Rep. Deb Haaland speaks at a reception hosted by the Congressional Native American Caucus in Washington on Jan. 3, 2019.Brian Snyder / Reuters
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By Michelle Chen

A shifting power balance on the Capitol — including the first two Native women elected to the House — might change the political landscape for disenfranchised indigenous communities. For now, though, Washington remains gridlocked and native communities persevere as sites of resistance, struggling on their own for another generation’s survival.

For a Native American girl growing up in Trump’s America today, there seem to be more paths to an early death than to a positive future. While the White House crusades to restore the nation to its supposed past greatness, the lost lives in Indian Country speak to how our history is still lived differently by the land's first inhabitants.

A new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a federal advisory body on discrimination issues, traces the depth of inequality and deprivation faced by native communities. Indigenous women and girls are often exposed to poverty and violence more than any other group of women and girls in America, burdened by historical discrimination and structural segregation of their communities.

According to the report, compared to the national average, Native women are “10 times more likely to be murdered and four times more likely to be sexually assaulted.” The community also suffers an infant and maternal health crisis: Native infants die at about double the rate of white counterparts, and Native mothers die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes at 4.5 times the rate of whites. Among indigenous women aged 35 to 64, the suicide rate rose by about 50 percent between 1999 and 2011.

A 2016 National Institute of Justice survey of Native women further revealed that more than eight in 10 had survived serious violence during their lifetimes, and more than half had suffered sexual violence. Upwards of 90 percent of violence cases involved a non-Native attacker — revealing a pattern of interracial attacks that tears into the community's social fabric.

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One major factor driving the attacks could be that, due to jurisdictional separation, perpetrators can often escape prosecution by either tribal law enforcement or local white authorities; the legal isolation of reservation communities institutionalized by federal and state governments could effectively unleash “open season” for predators. And ongoing impunity is exacerbated by poor data gathering throughout the reporting system for violent crime in Native communities, which further hampers efforts to investigate assaults and killings.

Also below the law enforcement's radar, violence haunts women through the grinding trauma of intimate violence. Indigenous women report having experienced stalking at nearly double the rate of white women, for example. About 60 percent report having been abused through coercive control from an intimate partner, such as being threatened with harm to her or her children if she tries to leave the relationship. About four in 10 native women report being unable to get needed services following intimate-partner or sexual violence, more than double the rate for white women.

These often subsurface indignities compound historical intergenerational traumas — the scars of the brutal white-enforced boarding school system, which subjected children to mass cultural repression and physical and sexual torture; centuries of land displacement and social marginalization; crumbling public services; environmental erosion; and chronic poverty and mental health problems on reservations.

Nancy Pelosi during a ceremonial swearing-in with Rep. Sharice Davids on Capitol Hill on Jan. 3, 2019.Alex Brandon / AP

Because so many depend on the federally controlled Indian Health Services system for care, Native women often face a deep lack of reproductive healthcare services. The Hyde Amendment, for example, explicitly bars Medicaid funds from being used for abortion services.

But the most brutal attacks on native communities stem from corrupt governance from D.C. and the betrayal of their sovereignty. To Caroline LaPorte of National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, the government has in fact never honored “its trust responsibility to tribes and Native people,” and Trump is just perpetuating a historical legacy. “It hasn't mattered really who's been in office or who's been in Congress,” she says. “There has been a continuous failing on the part of the United States government to fulfill that responsibility.”

Lacking the bare-minimum resources for implementing their own laws, though many local and state agencies receive myriad federal government funds, Native communities see a familiar pattern of oppression. Since the first days of colonial domination, LaPorte argues, the government has “continued their policies of genocide and colonization” through federal policy. Dealing with systemic deprivation in Native communities now requires fundamentally shifting the power balance: “tribes, as sovereigns, should be able to govern their people... it is the legal obligation of the United States to assist tribes by strengthening that sovereignty.”

Despite every level of government failing to protect communities from violence and to support their deteriorating social infrastructure, activists still continue to cultivate grassroots support networks and programs.

Some innovative groups, such as the Minnesota-based anti-domestic violence coalition Mending the Sacred Hoop, draw on local social networks and indigenous spiritual traditions in order to foster culturally rooted rehabilitation methods. The recent mass uprisings at Standing Rock, along with transnational movements to demand respect for indigenous women's right, have often proven that indigenous women — by advocating for themselves and for their families, communities and habitats — can go further than their institutions in challenging the social and political obstacles to Natives’ survival.

The extraordinary hardship and violence besieging Native women can’t be measured in statistics or resolved with simple charity. Communities are coping with the visceral reality of living with abuse, and oppression is an everyday phenomenon — whether it's being turned away from an overcrowded drug treatment center, neglected in a emergency room, forced to give up work because your spouse has locked you in the house, or raped by your boss.

Incremental reforms in recent years have offered Native victims of violence some legal relief and social support. Tribal courts, for instance, have gained some limited authority to prosecute domestic violence cases involving non-tribal abusers under the 2013 Violence Against Women Act legislation. But the Trump administration is actively dismantling the key programs that serve impoverished native communities, including public health systems, anti-discrimination protections and community and housing development.

Currently, Congress remains stalled on legislation to renew the Violence Against Women Act, which includes critical services for indigenous abuse survivors. Lawmakers have also so far failed to advance Savanna’s Act, a modest but vital initiative to reform the data-collection system for missing and murdered Native Americans. The bill, named after young murder victim Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, is set to be reintroduced in the new session, with a new Democratic House majority.

As Reps. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and Sharice Davids, D-Kan., bring unprecedented diversity to the government as first two Native women elected to Congress, fresh voices may yet emerge in Washington. But the Capitol has ever been the real arena of struggle for native women's rights. Social liberation for their communities begins and ends at home — on the land where they continue to stand and fight, on their own terms.