Notes from the Netroots: A Maze of Injustice


There is no good reason this issue should be as invisible as it is.
Indigenous women living on reservations are the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence at a higher rate than any other group in the United States.

The first panel I attended at Netroots Nation, happening in Austin, TX this week, Examining the Maze of Injustice: Our Nation’s Failure to Protect Indigenous Women From Violence explored the difficulties for indigenous women in prosecuting and seeking justice for these crimes, living on the reservation, and the ways in which these women, in tandem with Amnesty International and "the netroots" have been battling the problem.

And while I think it’s somewhat of an injustice that only 8 or so attendees were there, the netroots has stepped up in enormous ways for this issue.

For years, Georgia Littlefield and other women’s advocates "banged their heads against the walls of Congress" to try and get our representatives to pay attention to the dire situation on Native American reservations. And for years they were ignored.

Georgia Littlefield is the director of the Pretty Bird Woman House on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. PBWH is a domestic violence and sexual assault shelter for indigenous women and their children who have been victims of abuse.

But until last year they were stuffed into a 3 bedroom apartment, donated by the community, with no heat and no real security to speak of. Their apartment was vandalized. The phone lines were cut. When a woman who had been raped or assaulted came to the office, they would call the police – only to have them never show up or appear suddenly 3 days later. Georgia found herself taking photos of the women for evidence, on her own. Finally, with very little resources to speak of, they were about to move the whole operation into Georgia’s apartment, when "the netroots" heard about the story, and that all changed. Quickly, a web page with a link to donate online was set up for them. And blogger/activists raised over $100,000 to set them up in a new house, with heat and a security system that, according to Georgia, "…everyone knows about. No one is vandalizing us now."

But the situation is still dire.

Prosecutions for rape and domestic violence that occur on the reservation are slim and, it seems, no one – not even the federal government – knows whose responsibilty it is, ultimately, to ensure justice for indigenous women; thus the "maze of injustice".

According to
Tinnekkia Williams-Three Legs, another advocate and victim of violence and injustice herself, often times officials show up in reference to a case and look at each other with confusion: does it fall under tribal authority (BIA), state authority or federal authority? 86% of rapes on the reservations are perpetrated by non-native men. Who prosecutes them? It is true that all of these cases fall under federal authority – according to Amnesty International who created the report "Maze of Injustice" that the panel title refers to – the federal government has an obligation to protect the human rights of women around the world. But because of consistent underfunding of BIA and Indian Health Services (IHS) and no real baseline of information there is a real lack of support. And the federal governement rarely takes these cases on – leaving the tribal authorities with little inclination to take the cases on either.

Amnesty International has come in to help and advocates like Georgia and Tinnekkia are making things happen. There is now legislation, passed in the House, that seeks to ensure there is a sexual assault protocol for health care providers in IHS, sexual assault nurse examiners
to provide services to women in order to ensure that there are rape kits done for evidence, and more funding – all in the name of protecting indigineous women in this country.

For years, indigenous women, victims of violence, rape and assault have been silenced with no recourse. Our federal government has not provided the funding, resources or attention needed to ensure their basic human rights are met.

The report put out by AI – the report that has led to this legislation – has helped.

Georgia Littlefield tells the group that in the past, IHS has not done rape kits but instead sends them off of the reservation, 90 miles away, to Bismarck. There they call a criminal investigator and occasionally, he’ll make it up to the reservation but rarely. Thus, the women get no support, and dont’ see any real resolution to their cases – everyone is shirking the responsibility to make a case, prosecute a case and take care of these women. A lot of the women haven’t been prosecuting the cases because they know nothing would happen. With the support of bloggers and AI, this legislation holding IHS and the federal government’s feet to the fire, would mandate the tracking of cases and how many are being prosecuted, turned down and won or lost.

Tinnekkia says that while the support of the netroots and bloggers has been unbelievable, we must keep it up. Pretty Bird Woman House is currently writing grants for legal assistance and a sexual assault program. And Georgia tells me, when asked about the availability and access to emergency contraception on the reservation, they have no money to pay for EC. She says, "We’d like to be able to make emergency contraception available, but we can’t pay for it."

And though AI’s report has been integral to making progress with this issue, it is has been thanks to women like Georgia and Tinnekkia – brave women fighting to protect, ensure justice and care for "their women" – that life is changing on the reservation for women little by little.

Pretty Bird Woman House is now housed in a new, 3 bedroom home, and manages to serve 7 women and 3 children currently.

If you’d like to help ensure that they can not only serve the women in their community but provide crucial education and community programs that educate their entire community about sexual assault, rape and domestic violence, you can read more about them and donate here.

Some potential good news came this week for Native Americans with the Senate’s passage of PEPFAR and an amendment providing $2 billion dollars for IHS and law enforcement on reservations.  Scott mentioned the amendment in his Senate PEPFAR debate tracking post and KaiserNetwork summarizes the details of the PEPFAR bill and the IHS amendment.

Don’t forget! If you’re at Netroots Nation this week, RH Reality Check’s Breaking the Frame: Revitalizing and Redefining Reproductive Rights Media Coverage is this Saturday at 3pm. Join me, Amanda Marcotte, Marcela Howell, Andrea Camp and Eesha Pandit for a fantastic discussion!

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To schedule an interview with Amie Newman please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for taking note of this issue. As a Federal Indian Law activist and scholar we need more people to take note of this issue so that it stops being such a maze of injustice. I also greatly appreciated the panel you moderated at Netroots. I wanted to point out that the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota has already been affected by the Eight Circuit ruling that Emily has written about|, and the upcoming ballot initiative which you can read here|,

  • http://www.circleofancestors.org invalid-0

    Thanks so much for writing about this. I was deeply moved by the stories of these women and their work.

    I was able to capture a few clips of their panel and put them up on youtube. This should have been documented completely!