Why Violence Against Native Women is Our Issue: Native Men Need to Take Responsibility

Recently, President Obama signed into law the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that included provisions allowing tribal law enforcement to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes against Native women on reservation lands. Indeed, as many supporters of the bill have argued, this is an historic moment for tribes and Native women who are the victims of sexual violence and rape. What is more important, however, is VAWA brought to light the epidemic rates of sexual violence and rape that Native women experience and have historically experienced. Native women have become the central focus of VAWA as advocates and victims of sexual violence and rape. But where do Native men stand on VAWA and the epidemic violence against women in our communities, especially Native men who are perpetrators and protectors of perpetrators of sexual violence and rape?

Many of the statistics used to bolster support for VAWA’s reauthorization cite that one in three Native women (34.1%) will be sexually violated; in at least 86% of rape cases, perpetrators were found to be non-Native men; Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetime when compared to other women in the U.S.; many Native women living on the reservation do not report incidents of rape and sexual violence for fear of retaliation or revictimization; and, that these statistics reflect the lived experiences of urban Native women as opposed to the lived experiences of rural Native women, which statistics do not exist or are hard to attain. The last part of how these statistics were obtained is the most important–these statistics reflect the lived experiences of urban Native women rather than rural Native women. That means in large part that the lived experiences of Native women living on rural reservations, for example, go unaccounted.

Yes, these statistics are appalling, considering that many Native people live off-the reservation and urban areas. But what about those who live on or near reservations in rural parts of Indian Country? Where are these statistics and why are they not being talked about?

If we applied the one in three statistic to Native reservations and rural communities that are geographically isolated, would the 86% statistic also apply for non-Native male perpetrators? It seems highly unlikely unless non-Native men are driving to reservations and rural communities, committing rapes and sexual assaults and leaving. I know for a fact this happens, but I also know for a fact that within these rural communities that it does not happen at the rate of 86% of all cases. I put the statistics of all Native women who are victims and survivors of sexual violence and rape into question that 86% of all perpatrators are non-Native men, especially in rural Native communities.

If a Native woman is raped or sexually assaulted on the reservations, it is appropriate to assume that it was committed by a Native man, most likely a man who is close to his victim like a relative, boyfriend, husband, or family friend. One commentator argues that the myth purported by these statistics is damaging because it holds up the assumption that “non-Native men rape and batter but Native men don’t.”

For reservations of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, Pine Ridge, Standing Rock, and Rosebud have all come under scrutiny over how tribal law enforcement and tribal governments refuse to adequately address the epidemic violence against women. Sexual violence and rape against Native women is not limited to these communities. Often times, too, Native men who are perpetrators, convicted or not, occupy leadership positions within the community that make it harder for violence against women to be addressed because it directly implicates them. But our silence as men also directly implicates us.

Male relatives and friends of mine have also used the logic of innoculating themselves from assuming the responsibility of having deal with what they call “women’s issues.” I have also heard Native male leaders charge Native women as imposing “colonial ideologies” onto Native communities as “feminists.” Most disparaging, however, is the comment of “keep it at home.” Well, unfortunately, that is where rape and sexual violence often happens–at home!

Moreover, labeling rape and sexual violence in this manner is akin to the colonizers’ logic when they say things like “Go back to the rez!”; “It happened in the past!”; “Why blame men? Women should step up.”; “They asked for it.”; etc. If Native history has taught us anything, it is that at this contemporary moment our struggle is no longer to find out who we are as Native peoples; it is for the colonizers to find out who they are and how their role as colonizers further disposses Native people and Native land. Using that same logic in the case of violence against Native women, as Native men we need to step back and take a look at ourselves and find out who we are as oppressors, rapists, and perpatrators of sexual violence.

Ignoring this is equivalant to the colonial logics that we are somehow exempt from judgment because these things may or may not be true, that they happen elsewhere but not here, that they are “women’s issues,” that it should be kept within families, etc. All of these logics promote the public secret that everyone knows. Our Nations are made in the home. If rape and violence against women are happening at home, then they need to be addressed in public, in our tribal governments and public gatherings. These are not domestic issues perpetrated by a few bad apples if it is affecting one out three women and also in turn puts half of our population at risk.

Are we addressing the role men have in perpatrating rape and violence toward Native women? If that is not the case, then all of the rhetoric about “sovereignty” and land struggles is null. We are, then, just as bad as our colonizers because we are not addressing our role in the vicitimization of half our population! Consider that the next time you hear someone talk about genocide. What about half of our population who are at risk? This should be the number one priority of our men and our communities. Men need to step and own up to our responsibility. Violence against women is a Native men’s issue and we need to start recognizing that more and more if we are to effectively decolonize our Nations.

I am constantly reminded of relatives asking me, “Would your ancestors recognize you?” Men, keep that in mind as rapes and sexual violence against Native women is kept at its epidemic proportions. Ask yourself, what are we doing as men, as perpatrators, to stop this? And why is this not a number one priority in our struggles for decolonization? We have to hold ourselves accountable.

Hecetu Welo!

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