Legislation recently introduced and aimed at addressing the serious, but largely neglected, issue of violence against Native American women is currently being considered in the Congress. The stark realities facing many Native American women is highlighted by the fact that in many places they are as much as 10 times more likely to be victims of homicide. As alarming a figure this is, it is also reflective of elevated rates of sexual violence and exploitation, from disappearance and sexual assault, to human trafficking.
While the reasons for this are complex, their sources become more evident when we open our eyes to see them. Such persistent victimization stems from a host of accumulated conditions related to the challenges of reservation life, communities where the lack of educational opportunities and stark economic inequality foster an atmosphere rife with hopelessness, despair and vulnerability. Conditions that are often exacerbated by ineffective legal protections from understaffed or apathetic tribal and federal law enforcement agencies.
The initial solutions as proposed by the bipartisan group of lawmakers supporting the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act offer some important reforms and new procedures that can save lives. The Not Invisible Act would establish an advisory committee empowered to propose recommendations for actions to be taken by Cabinet departments that engage with Native communities -- including the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- creating awareness to help prevent violent crime against Native peoples on tribal lands.
Savanna's Act -- in honor of Savanna Greywind who was brutally murdered in North Dakota in 2017 -- promotes more efficient collection and distribution of statistics related to missing and murdered Native women, while also improving communication and collaboration between tribal, state and federal law enforcement agencies -- eliminating jurisdictional barriers that all too often, allow cases to fall through the cracks.
Despite the expected impacts of such reforms, the reality is that without increased education and economic opportunities for Native people, along with an informed public on Native history and culture, such issues will remain difficult to effectively address. For instance, among current Native populations, only 9 percent attain a university degree, while suffering under the highest rates of unemployment and poverty at 10 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in the nation. Yet, these figures fail to reveal the true extent of the crisis facing some Native communities where conditions on reservations are often much worse. On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example, unemployment is near 90 percent, while over 50 percent of the population live in poverty.
Without a nuanced understanding of the systemic oppression that have contributed to these conditions it is easy to fall into the trap of viewing Native peoples merely as 'victims,' or worse, resorting to victim-blaming. The impact of widespread public misconceptions and ignorance about Native experience are clear when considering the treatment Native peoples have endured throughout American history, which often resulted from a lack of understanding and empathy rooted in dehumanizing representations that rendered them as animalistic savages. Recent decisions by state legislatures in New Mexico, Vermont, and Maine joining Alaska, Minnesota, and Oregon in replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day are steps in the right direction in acknowledging the legacy of Euroamerican colonialism, while celebrating the modern presence of America's original inhabitants.
The fact that large portions of the American pubic are unaware that Native communities such as the Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, United Houma, or Seneca Nations constitute diverse sovereign nations within the United States, in accordance with accepted legal precedent and constitutional law, is illustrative of such educational challenges. In fact, there are currently over 570 tribal governments that hold sovereign governmental status, with scores of others with state recognition such as the Lumbee of North Carolina.
Certainly, the problems affecting Native communities didn't develop overnight, but have been exacerbated by factors such as cultural isolation reinforced through the reservation system, to centuries of distortion and misinformation about Native cultures, their legal status, and identities. Understandings that are heavily influenced by a serious neglect of Native histories and experiences within the American educational system.
Controversies stemming from the ongoing use of demeaning stereotypes reinforced by mascot imagery, illustrated through the example of the Washington Redskins, or the lack of concern for Native land rights, treaties, religious traditions, language and ceremonies displayed in recent conflicts over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Bear Ears Monument in Utah reflect just some of the effects of this ignorance.
While passage of the current bills would bring immediate relief to Native communities, making women more safe, a comprehensive approach to the deeper problems is needed. One not only based in law and policymaking, but, as we are striving for at the University of Denver in acknowledging our connections to Sand Creek and through community-engaged learning, to create an environment in which understanding and healing can take place.
Billy J. Stratton is a special advisor to the chancellor and provost on Native American Partnerships and Programs and co-director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Learning Community at The University of Denver.