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The Hidden Epidemic



Indigenous nations and their citizens are facing a crisis caused by continued colonization. Indigenous women and girls are targets for violence at astounding rates; unfortunately,  this is widely unknown to others outside of the circles with connection to the community or the work.

Over 500 distinct Nations exist within the boundaries of the continental United States, Alaska, and occupied Hawaiian Kingdom,   and experiences vary based on multiple factors including location and local systems. While individual situation are far from monolithic, there exists a few underlying threads of commonality.

To begin understanding what is happening, it is essential to understand the underlying colonial ideals and oppression forced on indigenous nations and their citizens since the arrival of European powers. When colonizers arrived  they stole territory, including agricultural fields and hunting grounds, through violent action (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014). Justification of such violent acts required systematic dehumanization of the original occupants. Colonial greed for land holdings and “valuable” resources, such as gold, necessitated the framing of indigenous populations as obstacles to modernization. The systematic dehumanization began with Columbus’s first voyage. Upon discovery of traces of valuable resources, Columbus and his men quickly began instituting human trafficking systems exploiting the Taíno people for labor and sex (Thatcher 1967). The letters of sailors on the initial voyages, which detail the practices,  detail the beginning of pervasive, fetishized images of Native women (Loewen 2007). This simultaneously hyper-sexualized and dehumanized imagery of Native women persists into modern times and often serves as justification for sexual violence (Finley 2012).

According to the National Institute for Justice, 84% of Native women face violence in their lifetime. In 2012, the US Department of Justice also found that on some reservations Native women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average. A study by the University of Delaware and the University of North Carolina determined that more than two-thirds of sexual assaults against indigenous women are committed by non-Indigenous people.,

Furthermore, Official government policies, such as Dawes Act funded Boarding Schools,  which forced  the abandonment of traditional values and practices (Lomawaima 2000). This act forcibly removed children from their families and culture and children faced harsh punishments for speaking their languages or practicing their religions. To this day, Indigenous children are one of the most overrepresented groups in the care of child protective services (Hill 2011).

When not actively removing Indigenous people, the imposed systems by the United States have created a culture that encourages crime against Native women.. The federal government has long held the beliefs that Indigenous Nations are too primitive to properly dispense justice and that their traditional modes of justice are not to the minimum standard of Eurocentric society. These beliefs resulted in the Major Crimes Act, the Oliphant Decision, the Indian Reorganization Act, and Indian Civil Rights Act. These laws and judgments limited the Nations’ sovereignty and abilities to ensure the safety of tribal citizens. What is left for the Nations is  very limited jurisdiction and limited methodologies to  bring justice  to their own citizens, and to non-citizens, .  With the limited ability to enforce laws against non-Natives, the Nations must rely on the United States law enforcement, which has long viewed the plight of Natives as less than worthwhile. (Law Enforcement in Indian Country, 2007)

Predators have long been aware of  the opportunity they have to exploit Indigenous people with impunity, created by   these systemic failures. Coupled with deep-seated fetishization and exploitation,  predators  have created the current Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls epidemic.

Heath Lowry is a  lawyer for MCEDSV’s Survivor Law Clinic. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual violence, our trained advocates are available to talk 24 hours a day toll-free at 1-855-VOICES-4 (1-855-864-2374).

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Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2015). An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.

Finley, C. (2012). Decolonizing Sexualized Cultural Images of Native Peoples: “Bringing Sexy Back” To Native Studies.

Hill, R. B. (2011). Gaps in research and public policy. In D. K. Green, K. Belanger, R. G. McRoy, & L. Bullard (Eds.), Challenging racial disproportionality in child welfare: Research, policy, and practice. Washington, DC: CWLA Press.

Law Enforcement in Indian Country: Hearing Before the Committee on Indian Affairs, Senate, 110th Cong. (2007)

Loewen, J. W. (2007). Lies my teacher told me: everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lomawaima & Child & Archuleta (2000). Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences. Heard Museum.

Thacher, J. B., & Columbus, C. (1967). Christopher Columbus: his life, his work, his remains as revealed by original printed and manuscript records, together with an essay on Peter Martyr of Anghera and Bartolomé de las Casas, the first historians of America. New York: AMS Press.