On Oct. 18th, University of Kansas Professor Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, held a virtual keynote talk for the University of Connecticut to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The Native American Cultural Programs, the Undergraduate Student Government and the Violence Against Women Prevention Program at UConn co-sponsored the event in honor of Native and Indigenous Heritage Month. Deer, whose work concerns Indigenous victims’ rights, spoke about historical factors, legal precedents and reasons why there are so many Indigenous victims of violence.
Deer cited the difficulty of compiling data on crimes in the United States, saying that a large number of crimes go unreported. According to RAINN, more than 2 out of 3 sexual assaults go unreported. Therefore, Deer explained, it is hard to classify how widespread violence against Indigenous people is. Additionally, Deer talked about a report conducted by the National Institute of Justice. According to the Department of Justice, 84.3% of American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) women will undergo violence in their lifetime. 56.1% will experience at least one incident of sexual violence.
The presentation also emphasized the commonplace abuse of Indigenous people throughout history. Deer showed a portion from Christopher Columbus’ writing which describes subduing and raping a woman from the Carib tribe. As part of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, the Cherokee tribe was forced to move from Mississippi to Oklahoma, PBS stated. Many starved and died in the process.
“What happens to refugee zones? What happens to people who are fleeing from war? Sexual assault is a part of that story. Who do you report that to if you are a victim there?” Deer said.
Deer explained that the era of Andrew Jackson’s policies were not the only time the federal government violated the sovereignty of tribes. She discussed the boarding schools that Native American children were allegedly taken to and brainwashed. According to her, the children were forced to forget their culture, physically and mentally traumatized by their “superiors” and then sent back to the reservations. Deer further discussed how the government began to erode the legal systems of tribes through legislation like the Major Crimes Act and Oliphant vs. Suquamish.
In the former case, a Native American killed another on a reservation. The Supreme Court originally ruled that the tribe’s punishment of lifetime restitution — meaning that he would have to take care of the victim’s family for life — for the murderer was legal. According to the Department of Justice Archives, this meant that the federal government could not try an Indigenous person for a crime committed on Indigenous territory. Deer said that this meant that tribes originally retained their legal systems and sovereignty. However, the federal government reversed their decision through the Major Crimes Act and were able to take prosecutive authority over tribal crimes, said the DOJ Archives.
Deer discussed that the legal systems that were slowly being replaced were more restorative than Western systems of law. In her search for evidence regarding how sexual crimes were prosecuted in traditional tribal courts, Deer stumbled upon a Creek tribal law addressing rape.
“It really centered the survivor of sexual assault to have agency to have whatever remedy be appropriate to be in her case…no state would have anything like this in their own laws because women couldn’t own property or enter into contracts,” she said.
To this effect, Deer argued that the slow decay of tribal sovereignty, rampant sexual violence in the past and present and abuse of Indigenous peoples have contributed to the epidemic of sexual violence against AIAN people today. She emphasized that the ultimate point of the presentation is to encourage students to take this information and educate themselves and others about the issues. Deer said that a small step that students could take right now is to call their senators and tell them to support the Democrat reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
“The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) creates and supports comprehensive, cost-effective responses to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking,” stated the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
“Our student group, the Native American and Indigenous Student Association, is fundraising this month for the NIWRC, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. So I know we don’t have a lot of money if you’re in college, but you know, even a dollar or two…that can add up to a significant amount and it does make a difference,” said Kaylee Mootz, the program coordinator of the NACP.