What the Signing of the Violence Against Women Act Means to Me

sarah deer

Sarah Deer (Mvskoke Nation and Member of Amnesty International USA’s Native American and Alaska Native Advisory Council), with Ruth Jewell (Penobscot nation and President BOD of National Coalition Against Domestic Violence), Representative Tom Cole (Republican champion of VAWA and member of the Chickasaw nation) and Rita Smith, Executive Director of National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

By Sarah Deer, Mvskoke Nation and Member of Amnesty International USA’s Native American and Alaska Native Advisory Council

I was 5 years old when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Oliphant v. Suquamish in 1978.  The decision stripped tribal governments of criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian and has left Native communities vulnerable to violent crimes committed by non-Indians in our territories.

When I first began learning about this case in earnest in law school years later, I was horrified. Why would the court rule that tribal nations lacked inherent authority to protect themselves? Over the years, many Indian law experts told me that it was unlikely that Congress would overturn the decision. Unfortunately, for many politicians, prejudice and ignorance have been the primary tools used to assess the legitimacy of tribal courts.


New Report on Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota

“I thought prostitution was normal living.”

Last week the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research & Education, an incredible team of Native American women researchers and activists, released a report on prostitution and trafficking of Native American women in Minnesota.

Garden of Truth is the first study detailing the personal experiences of Native women who have been prostituted and trafficked in Minnesota. The research team interviewed 105 women to assess the life circumstances that led them to prostitution.  The study found about half of the women met a conservative legal definition of sex trafficking which involves third-party control over the prostituting person by pimps or traffickers.


Congress passes Tribal Law and Order Act provisions in H.R. 725!

HUGE thanks and a heartfelt congratulations to everyone who has been involved in Amnesty International’s Stop Violence Against Women work, and in particular, the work to end sexual violence and rape against Native American and Alaska Native women in the U.S.

The House just passed H.R. 725, to which the Tribal Law and Order Act was attached as an amendment, by a vote of 326 yays to 92 nays. This historic and long-overdue legislation will now go to President Obama to be signed into law!!

This will be the major solution for the long-overdue problem of disturbing rates of sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women.

In 2007, Amnesty International published a report titled Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA that exposed the disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence that Native American and Alaska Native women suffer in this country. Additionally, it detailed the complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that often allows perpetrators, 86 percent of them non-Native men, to rape with impunity. This maze currently dictates that authorities need to establish whether the crime took place on tribal lands and whether the perpetrator was Native or non-Native before prosecuting, meaning that critical time is lost. This leads to inadequate investigations or a failure to respond.

The provisons of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 will remedy this maze as it will enhance the criminal justice system by improving coordination and communication between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies as well provide beginning steps to empower tribal governments to take more direct action in cases of violent crime. In time it will decrease the high levels of rape and finally provide Native women with effective recourse if they are sexually assaulted. This is a major victory for Native women as it is a critical step toward ensuring that Native women’s human rights are recognized.

Our deepest respect, appreciation and congratulations to all of our members and activists, tribal leaders and Native advocates, friends, family and colleagues – without you this incredible victory would not have been possible.

Stopping Violence against Women in Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Welcome to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation--a sign on one of the border points that indicates you're now on tribal land in North Dakota.

Welcome to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. This is a sign on one of the border points that indicates you are entering tribal land in North Dakota.

That sign says it all.  As you cross this bridge entering tribal land and tribal jurisdiction, this is the only indication you’ll have.  While it may seem insignificant to the regular driver cruising U.S. highway 1806, this sign along with many other border points along the Reservation is where the maze of injustice begins for the women of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

For the last three years, I’ve been the Amnesty International organizer working in this community in partnership with local Native women to accomplish our Maze of Injustice report goals.  As I travel around the Reservation over the next week having meetings and participating in traditional ceremonies, I hope to provide you with a glimpse into the everyday lives of the many survivors, local advocates and tribal leaders who have been instrumental in beginning to stop this cycle of violence against women living here.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was one of three Reservations that were examined in the 2006 Amnesty International report “Maze of Injustice: the Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA.” According to the report, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to raped or sexually assaulted than any other woman in the USA. Of the women of Standing Rock that I’ve worked with, I haven’t met one who could think of a woman in their community who hadn’t experienced this violence. This is a direct result of a tangled mess of jurisdictional issues, insufficient levels of law enforcement, lack of protocols for handling cases of sexual assault and domestic violence and very few trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) available to perform rape kits at the local Indian Health Services hospitals.

While we’ve had many successes here over the last few years, we still have a long way to go.  The largest local success being the establishment of the only operational safe house called Pretty Bird Woman House. This is the only shelter serving an area of over one million square miles in either direction located in McLaughlin, SD.  In the last year alone, this shelter has seen over 100 women walk through the doors to receive necessary support, counseling and legal advocacy in an effort to bring their perpetrators to justice.

With that, I invite you to stay tuned over the next few days for your very own first eye view of the amazing and courageous women of Standing Rock Reservation. Women, that everyday are faced with the unknown fear of when this will happen to them.