Abuse of Native American women – an interview with Charmaine White Face

Posted on 25 May 2012


Posted on 25 May 2012
Emine Dilek
WVoN co-editor

For the first time in its history, the United Nations decided this year to open an investigation into the way in which the US government treats Native Americans, now and in the past.

Led by human rights professor and Native American, James Anaya, the human rights inquiry will look at the conditions endured by his people.

The country’s estimated 2.7 million Native Americans live in federally established tribal areas called reservations which are plagued by unemployment, alcoholism, high suicide rates and other social problems.

They are also bogged down in disputes over sovereignty and land rights with the US and state governments due to endless violations of their territories and rights.

On top of that, Native American women living in reservations report rates of domestic violence and physical assault that are much higher than for women from other ethnicities and locations.

I was lucky enough to interview Ms Charmaine White Face, one of the advisors to Professor Anaya and the spokesperson for the Sioux Nation Treaty Council about the plight of Native American women. She is also the founder and Coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills.

ED: Native American women experience the highest rate of violence of any group in the United States. A 2004 Department of Justice report estimates that they suffer violent crime at a rate 50% higher than the next most victimized demographic, 70% of these predators are non-Native. Yet many crimes go unreported. Why is this and what are the major reasons behind the underreporting of these crimes?

CWF: Of course these rates go back to the colonization and racism, because if we were allowed to impose our laws, in our culture, this would not be happening at all. The difference between our culture and the US culture is that we are a matriarchy and the United States is a patriarchy. We have no protection from the outside intruders, so any man can come in and assault us.

Underreporting is the result of distrust and the apathy of the police, judges and courts in general. We don’t feel that anything will be done if we report a rape or a beating. I have personally experienced this when my 14 year old granddaughter was raped by a wealthy white rancher. Her family went to the tribal police; we also went to the state police, we went to the county, and nobody did anything. They did not even bother to open an investigation, let alone do it right. That rancher has bragged around saying nobody would do anything to me, I have friends in the US State Attorney’s office. Now, that’s just one incident.

We are forced by the 1885 Major Crimes Act to report our crimes to the US Government instead of handling it within the nation through our legal system and laws. The reason that it was created was to take our power away from us, so we could not follow our own laws.

ED: In addition to sexual abuse, Native American women also experience the highest levels of domestic abuse of any group. The Report on Violence against Alaska Native Women in Anchorage found a widespread fear and distrust of law enforcement. What causes this distrust and how can things be improved to provide better protection and safety for Native women?

CWF: One of the first reasons is that throughout the colonization of our nations, boarding schools were established by the US Government to separate the children from their parents to assimilate them. Many of these children were abused, physically, emotionally and even sexually. They were indoctrinated in patriarchy to abandon matriarchal traditions. This has gone on for generations.

The policy of these boarding schools was forced separation of Indian children from the tribal communities. Gender roles and family relationships were impaired at the boarding schools, where the focus was on the European tradition of male-female relationships and not the Indian tradition of holding women and children sacred. Because no other schools were allowed to be built on the reservations, these Government run boarding schools were the only options if you wanted your children to get an education.

Secondly, domestic violence is a symptom of poverty. The end result of ghettoising the reservations, keeping the people isolated, marginalized and in poverty is hopelessness, which causes them to be violent or kill themselves through suicide or other drug and alcohol addictions.

So these high rates are the direct result of intergenerational traumas, abject poverty, colonization, oppression, racism and ongoing marginalization of our people.

ED: Courts tend to ignore cases of violence involving Native American women due to alleged confusion between federal and tribal jurisdiction. Law enforcement and attorneys often are not schooled in how to deal with the cross-over between jurisdictions. How can this be resolved? Could re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act help?

CWF: As long as local state governments refuse to co-operate, the US federal government could pass any laws they like but we still would not get the protection we need. Local enforcement is actually more important than these big laws.

As far as the jurisdiction confusion, that is just an excuse. The lack of justice is mostly the cause of indifference towards Native People’s issues and apathy of local law enforcement, including attorneys and judges.

ED: The Indian Health Service, the federal agency responsible for providing health care on all reservations, is failing Native American women on many fronts as they do not have access to even basic reproductive health services. Basically you are the only race in the country that is denied access to abortion merely because of your race. Is there a way to overturn these stipulations?

CWF: The HIS (Indian Health Service) is a federal agency, but it does not get the funding it needs, and it is corrupt and inadequate. Every time the USA wages war on another country, in order to fund that war, the first cuts are always from Indian services – from our healthcare to housing to security. There are not enough police officers in the reservations. The HIS in Pine Ridge reservation which is one of the biggest reservations, does not even have a doctor.

It is a big systemic problem. Right now the policy of the HIS is “life or limb,” basically in order to get treatment either your life has to be in danger or you need to be in a situation of losing a limb. Otherwise there are no treatments for reproductive health or even for preventive care. That’s it.

ED: The Indian Health Service has been highly criticized for its treatment of women over the years; there were even accusations that it had forcibly sterilised Native women. Is this under investigation or can this be considered ethnic cleansing?

CWF: A generation of women never had children and during their stay in the US government-run boarding schools, they were taken to the hospitals for forced “tonsil removals.” Professor Anaya has given a lot of information to the UN and there were women who also gave presentations on this issue to the UN, but I am sure the investigation will cover this.

ED: Thank you very much for your time. I hope this interview will help shed more light on the plight of Native women.

Professor Anaya’s report to the UN is expected to be published in September.