When I read this account in Rebecca Solnit’s much praised book I was initially horrified, soon followed by incredulous. According to Solnit’s essay, written in 2013, ‘…one of three Native American women will be raped, and on the reservations 88% of those rapes are by non-Native men who know tribal governments can’t prosecute them.’ I didn’t doubt the figures, given the economic deprivation and alcoholism found on Native American reservations. But the idea that there’s some governmental loophole that makes rape legal didn’t seem right. I did some research.
In 2013, Solnit was right to say one in three Native American women were raped in their lifetimes. Solnit was also roughly accurate as I found figures between 86% and 87% for the times these rapes occurred on the reservations by non-Native men. But it’s not completely true that non-Native men couldn’t be prosecuted. It’s more complicated than that. Since 1978, tribes lost the right to arrest non-Indians who commit crimes on their lands. If the victim and the perpetrator were non-Native, the case would be handled at the county or state level. If the victim was Native American and the perpetrator non-Native, only a federal officer could make the arrest and the case held at the federal level. With these complications, fewer cases were being reported and prosecuted. Around the time Solnit was writing her essay, some 65% of reported rapes on reservations were not prosecuted, according to the US Justice Department.
Certainly, the limited powers of the tribes’ authority, along with the possibility that the victim might not have known if her attacker were Native or not, made it easier for non-Native predators to commit their crimes. With this in mind, Solnit makes an astute point following on from the statistics when she says, ‘So much for rape as crimes of passion – these are crimes of calculation and opportunism.’
After years of petitioning legislators by women’s and human rights groups in America, the laws were finally changed in 2015. Native American tribes are now allowed to persecute crimes against women in their own courts, even if the perpetrator is non-Native.
I wish I could end this reportage here. But I can’t. It’s been two years since these federal laws changed, yet little has changed for Native American women. According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), only 13 of the 562 federally recognised tribes have become ‘compliant’ with these new federal regulations. This is largely because tribes have to include non-Natives on their juries in such cases. That is difficult logistically, culturally and financially.
Underneath all of the legal wrangling lies the real problem. Sexual violence is still mostly experienced by women – the perpetrators nearly always men. Cultural change is desperately needed in Native and non-Native communities alike.