December 12, 2017

#NotInvisible: The Plight of Native American Women and Sexual Violence

Eliza Racine

CW: Rape/sexual violence

Recent social media campaigns like #MeToo have catapulted issues relating to sexual assault and harassment into the national spotlight. People across the country and the world are realizing the great magnitude of the epidemic, ranging from the horrible trauma that it creates to the predators who get away with it but still hold their power — whether in Hollywood or the Capitol Building.

But one subject of sexual violence in this country that still needs to be further addressed is the plight of Native American women and girls. 

In a similar vein of #MeToo, the recent hashtag #NotInvisible was recently coined to address the 84 percent of Native American women who have faced some kind of violence throughout their lifetime. The campaign was launched by North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp for the the introduction of a piece of legislation called Savanna’s Act to Congress last month. Heitkamp and other public figures asked supporters to use the hashtag on social media in order to recognize Native American Heritage Month and raise awareness around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).

It should be noted that Heitkamp has proven that her friendship to Indian Country is compromised due to an allegiance with the oil industry. However, the social media campaign she started does not fail to bring light to a very dark, very important issue. 

With every shared hashtag and  it brings to light the great magnitude of violence against Native American women. If #MeToo can provide a place of solidarity among women to share their experiences of sexual violence, then perhaps #NotInvisible will help protect Native American women from any more harm and bring the many who are still missing home.

One search that is currently underway is for Olivia Lone Bear, a 32 year old mother of five, who has been missing since Oct. 24. She was last seen leaving a bar in New Town, North Dakota, in a teal pickup truck—an area known for housing male oil workers in proximity to the Bakken shale. 

Olivia's relatives continue organizing search parties on the Fort Berthold Reservation and surrounding areas. But despite tips of sightings from California, her whereabouts have yet to be confirmed. More information on Olivia, search parties, and how to help #FindOliviaLoneBear can be found on the Facebook page, Searching For Olivia Lone Bear.

As days pass, fears grows for her family as to what might have happened to her. As noted by Cherokee lawyer, Mary Kathryn Nagle, in a recent interview on Democracy Now!, missing persons cases are far too common among Native American women, and in 2016, almost 6,000 such cases were reported to the National Crime Information Center.

It is well cited that Indian Country has the highest rates of violence in the United States, as well as horrifyingly high rates of domestic violence, rape/sexual assault, and human trafficking. A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice found that 84 percent of Native American women — which is more than 1.5 million — have experienced violence in their lifetime, with more than half of the cases being some form of domestic or sexual violence. Ninety-seven percent of the perpetrators are non-Native or non-tribal members, which proves difficult for tribal courts to prosecute as they have no authority to do so. Although the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) is supposed to give tribal courts more power to prosecute non-Natives in cases of domestic violence, only 13 out of 562 federally-recognized tribes have adopted these regulations as of March 2017. Unfortunately, many tribes do not have enough funds to provide a lawyer to a defendant if they cannot afford one, and they would have to change tribal laws to include non-Natives in jury selections as VAWA mandates.

This lack of power among tribal courts and law enforcement has effectively created a decades-long history of unresolved cases of violence and missing persons. 

On the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, police have been trying to find 20 year old Ashley Loring HeavyRunner since June. With a police force of only 15 officers to patrol 1.5 million acres of reservation land, little progress has been made in almost half of year of getting closer to find Ashley.

Similarly, given the complicated justice system for tribal courts and the stressed relationship between Native Americans and law enforcement, many cases of violence go unreported or underreported — which becomes a compounding factor in preventing missing person cases. Two polls on NPR found that 36 percent of Native Americans avoided calling the police out of fear of discrimination, and half say they or a family member felt they were treated unfairly in the courts. A 2013 report by the National Congress of American Indians found the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute more than half of the cases of violence on Indian Country, and of the cases, 67 percent of them were of sexual violence. If any cases did go to trial, only 13 percent of them ended in arrests.

Cases of missing Native American women are steadily getting more recognition, though, as this situation is a major problem in need of addressing at the federal level. On Oct. 5, Senator Heitkamp introduced Savanna’s Act to Congress, a bill named after 22 year old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who vanished back in August while eight months pregnant. She was found dead eight days later, and her newborn baby had been stolen from her womb and kidnapped by her own neighbors. Heitkamp's bill seeks to improve tribal communities' access to crime databases for better data collection and establish standardized protocols for cases of missing Native Americans.

However, if the United States government wants to establish any trust in Indian Country, it needs to be done with utmost sincerity. Trust between Native communities and settler society is still shaky given the years of colonization, to say the least. With politicians tweeting  #NotInvisible and #MMIW, it is imperative that this become more than just a hashtag trend but an actual step to tangible progress; for Native women, it’s a matter of life or death.

Taking action to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, similarly, also involves changing the culture that allows Native women to go missing at the rates that they do. The current president not only aligns with oil companies who steal Native lands, but also uses racial slurs to attack senators, such as his “playful jab” at Senator Elizabeth Warren in calling her “Pocahontas” in front of the Navajo Code Talkers. Using the Pocahontas caricature for Native heritage is not only insulting to Matoaka, who endured a horrid life of kidnapping, assimilation, and rape, but to the thousands of Native American women today who still face the same horrors in 2017.

If this new legislation seeks to help the plight of Native American women, it needs regulations which will be accessible to all tribes and actually be effective to diminish the violence across Indian Country.