One specific population is at a significantly higher risk for domestic violence than others: Native Americans. According to a study from the National Institute of Justice, some 84 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and more than half have endured this violence at the hands of an intimate partner. More than two-thirds of the women, or 66 percent, say they have been the victims of psychological aggression by a partner.
Comparatively, roughly 35 percent of women and 28 percent of men in the general population of the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
In addition, more than half of all Native women who have experienced abuse say they have also endured sexual assault, and another 48 percent have been stalked.
The majority of these cases of abuse—nearly 97 percent—have been committed by non-Native individuals. And until an expanded version of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) passed in 2013, tribal courts in the 566 federally-recognized Native American tribes across the country did not have jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators. This meant these non-Native offenders were essentially granted immunity for their crimes.
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Deborah Parker’s assailant was one of those who seemingly slipped through the cracks. Parker has lived on the Tulalip Indian Reservation in Washington her whole life. She’s a former member of the Tulalip Tribe’s board of directors and today works as a consultant and speaker on social justice for indigenous women. She’s also a married mom of five.
But when she was a little girl, a non-Indian extended family member sexually assaulted her, and kept assaulting her until she was in the 4th grade. She didn’t report the crime until much later and her abuser was never prosecuted.
Sadly, she’s heard many stories like hers over the years, like that of her aunt, who was raped by four men some 20 years ago on the reservation. When her aunt tried to seek help off the reservation, she was told she needed to return and report the crime to her tribal government.
“But they didn’t have the services to help her then,” recalls Parker. “This was in the ‘90s. She ended up taking drugs and killing herself.”
The NIJ study showed that more than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native female victims, or 38 percent, and more than one in six American Indian and Alaska Native male victims, or roughly 17 percent, were unable to get the services that they needed after incidents of intimate partner violence.
Where is the Disconnect?
Confusion over who has jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute crimes on Indian reservations is a continual barrier to effectively address domestic violence against Native individuals. Parker also says many reservations are remote and resources to help survivors are few and far between. Add to that cultural differences that can stand in the way of someone seeking help off the reservation, and a stigma when they seek help on a reservation, and many survivors feel trapped in an abusive cycle that has no end.
“We’re so connected with each other on the reservation that reporting [abuse] against a family member is a really difficult thing,” says Parker, who says a lot of Native people do not trust the law enforcement on the reservation to take care of them. Still, leaving the reservation isn’t a consideration for many.
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“It can be a hard life here because of alcohol, drugs, abuse, yes. But this is where family is. You don’t want to leave them.”
No Breaking the Cycle
Parker says there’s no domestic violence education taught in schools on the reservation, at least to her knowledge. Last October, her children’s school did have a “Healing Week,” and Parker was a featured speaker, talking to students about domestic violence and sexual assault.
“They have no idea,” she says. Parker remembers when she used to run a girl’s group. A young woman disclosed that her friend was being abused. The woman in question denied the claim, saying her boyfriend never hit her, he only dragged her by the hair.
“I had to take a few deep breaths,” says Parker. “This girl thought she did something wrong and that’s what she deserved.”
Studies show that, due to issues like violence and abuse, Native American children on reservations suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at roughly the same rate as soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is why Native American experts are urging Congress to close a loophole in VAWA that does not cover children in its allowing of tribes to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators for crimes committed against Native Americans.
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