Article — From the February 2011 issue

Tiny Little Laws

A plague of sexual violence in Indian country

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“Just keep digging, keep asking questions,” a former police officer I’ll call Tom,[1] who lives on Standing Rock, urged me a few days later. In his forties, with short dark hair, a long tapered mustache, and watchful eyes, he had been born and raised on the reservation, and as a young teenager he had watched a group of older guys rape a drunken, unconscious woman at a house party in Fort Yates. After which, he stumbled outside to the yard and vomited on the lawn. “People are just aching to tell somebody, anybody,” he said. “Even the people who aren’t supposed to tell.” And then he told me that he, too, had been sexually assaulted, when he was a young boy. “People are tired of this.”

[1] The names and some identifying details of victims have been changed to protect their privacy.

For decades the people of Standing Rock have been plagued by sexual violence, inadequate police protection, and an ineffectual legal system that allows rapists and child molesters to go unpunished, free to commit the same crimes again and again. Complain as they might—and many women’s advocates, social workers, and ordinary citizens have complained—no one listened until Amnesty International (“that white group,” is how one embittered Sioux activist described them) published a report in 2007 titled “Maze of Injustice: the failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA.” The report was issued after two years of research in Oklahoma, Alaska, and on the Standing Rock Reservation. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, almost two thirds of Native American and native Alaskan women have been physically assaulted, most often by an intimate partner. They are nearly three times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other American women, and the assaults are more violent, more likely to require medical care.

On many reservations, women have given up on the idea of justice and have come to consider sexual assault as just another part of their rough lot. When I asked the head of a women’s shelter on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota for the prior year’s figures on reported rapes, she said there hadn’t been any, and then laughed gruffly. “We used to have thirty to forty reported rapes a month,” she told me. “Now we get one.” Since no other crime statistic was going down and the reservation was, in fact, getting more lawless every year—her shelter kept filling up with bruised and beaten women who, if you asked gently, would almost always reveal that yes, they had been sexually assaulted at this or that time in their lives—one official report of rape a month could only mean that rape victims had stopped going to the police.

Last July, three years after Amnesty International issued its report, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, widely hailed as an important step toward fixing the ineffectual tribal courts and indifferent federal apparatus that administer justice on Indian lands. “It looks good on paper, very good,” says Tinnekkia Williams, a mother of four and a women’s advocate who worked closely with Amnesty International when they were studying Standing Rock. “But actually implementing it is a whole different story.” The act is explicitly aimed at reducing “epidemic” rates of sexual assault and domestic violence against Native American women by improving the legal and medical response to such violence. Its provisions extend the authority of tribal law and facilitate coordination with federal investigations. But the act’s effectiveness depends on the will of those enforcing it, and on whether there will be funding for its various provisions. Otherwise it will become yet another broken promise. “Our women are tired,” Tinnekkia says. “They’re tired of getting raped, they’re tired of getting beaten. They’re tired of getting their hopes stepped on any time they try to do something about it.”

’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, Crimes Against Nature, appeared in the July 2008 issue. She is a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute

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