We know that American Indian women suffer high rates of crime. Much-cited national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Injury Prevention show that 1 in 3 American Indian women have been raped and more than 1 in 3 have experienced domestic violence, rates that are markedly higher than for other U.S. racial or ethnic groups. But American Indian girls also suffer distressingly high rates of violence compared to youth of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, including elevated rates of sexual violence and exposure to domestic violence.
The National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, a nationally representative survey of the experiences of more than 4,500 youth conducted by David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, and myself, is one of the nation's primary surveillance mechanisms for tracking violence against children. It provides some of the only data that enables us to examine national rates for American Indian girls. The statistics for American Indian girls show that American Indian girls are almost nine times more likely to be raped than other girls, with a lifetime rate already reaching 1 in 10 girls even in this very young sample which includes the full range of childhood from infancy to age 17. If attempted rape is included, the rate is 1 of 8 American Indian girls. More than 2 out of 5 American Indian girls have witnessed assault between their parents or other caregivers, a rate that is 2.5 times higher than the already worrisome rate for other girls. Other forms of victimization, such as sustaining physical assault by any perpetrator, are also higher for American Indian girls compared to other girls. Unfortunately, existing legal policies impede the criminal justice response to violence against women and girls.
As it stands right now, tribal courts cannot prosecute non-Indian batterers, even if they live on a reservation and are married to an American Indian woman. A new provision in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) can help American Indian women and girls overcome a serious gap in their legal protections. The version of VAWA that passed the Senate would give tribal courts the power to prosecute non-Indians who perpetrate domestic or dating violence and who violate protection orders on tribal land through concurrent, joint jurisdiction with Federal courts. These added protections are an important step toward better protecting American Indian both girls and women from domestic and sexual violence.
In the United States, most crime victims do not have to worry about jurisdiction. It just seems "natural" to report a crime to your local police department and assume they can intervene. Even in communities with poor relations between citizens and police, there is little doubt as to who the responsible law enforcement authorities are. American Indians living on reservations do not have this luxury. Tribal police currently do not have the authority to arrest or even detain a non-Indian suspect. Non-Indian suspects are supposed to fall under Federal jurisdiction, but there simply aren't enough Federal marshals to provide day-to-day policing on tribal lands, nor is community policing their responsibility. As has been pointed out by Amnesty International and others, the result is that many crimes and many acts of violence against women and girls are never prosecuted. Although this huge gap in law enforcement coverage is not well known among the general public, it is well known to some perpetrators seeking havens from law enforcement. The result is that even as young children, many American Indians are exposed to high rates of crime and violence. The resulting "polyvictimization" creates a tremendous burden on American Indian families and communities. More needs to be done to safeguard the welfare of American Indian girls as well as women. The new provisions in VAWA are much-needed and long-delayed steps towards equal access to the law for American Indian victims of crime.
Sherry Hamby, Ph.D. is a Research Associate Professor in Psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South and editor of the journal Psychology of Violence.