In this Q&A, Holona Ochs, associate professor of political science who studies criminal justice and public policy, discusses how colonization has contributed to gender-based violence in Native American communities, lists policy contributors, and shares how recognizing its implications can support all women, especially Indigenous survivors.
Why hasn’t the scale of the problem been fully known or acknowledged?
First, poor collection and reporting of race/ethnicity in police reports results in an undercounting and misidentification of Indigenous victims.
There is a longstanding American tradition of what Kate Shanley and Bjorg Evjen refer to as the “present absence” of Native Americans. The belief that Native Americans are vanishing and the conquest of North America is justified has deep roots. The presence of Native peoples reminds us of the precarious foundation of the U.S. nation-state and the brutality — which is in stark contrast to the American ideals laid out in the Constitution and how many Americans prefer to see themselves — of its founding. Native bodies were believed to be “polluted with sin” that white settler colonialism intended to eliminate.
Additionally, settler colonialism destroyed Native societies — beliefs, values, cultures, norms, and traditions were disrupted through massacres, forced removal of children from families, making cultural practices illegal, breeding negative stereotypes about Native Americans, and white claims to Native identities.
The pervasive effects of colonization drive issues like “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” The outrage is an echo from the past and comes from the painful efforts of survivors to live with dignity and honor loved ones and ancestors. Violence against Native women has a long history that has been denied, marginalized, ignored, and diminished. We cannot, however, deal with the scourge of race-gendered violence until we reconcile with our past.
What are the policies that got us to this point?
Drastic reductions in tribal sovereignty means that crimes against Native Americans are rarely investigated properly and take away the power of Native American communities to protect themselves.
Complexities created by policies such as The Major Crimes Act (1885), Oliphant v. Squamish (1978) and PL 280 (1953) produce very few prosecutions and even fewer convictions. U.S. DOJ statistics show that 80% of criminal matters were referred to U.S. prosecutors for prosecution in 2018. By contrast, only 60% of crimes reported on Native American reservations were prosecuted, and 65% of those cases were physical or sexual violence that were declined for prosecution in that same year.
This history and these policies contribute to feelings among women of color in particular that the state cannot be trusted, should be feared, and results in low rates of reporting race-gendered violence as well.
What role has resistance played in these processes?
Native American communities have always found inventive and peaceful ways to resist colonization. Indigenous communities are also water protectors at the heart of social movements to ensure all have access to clean water. Resistance is often met with backlash from the authorities. It also produces a situation in which tensions between Native communities and the police are high, making the kind of collaboration necessary to investigate race-gendered violence tremendously challenging in the jurisdictional maze of authority.
Additionally, the “man camps” that proliferated throughout the “fracking gold rush” place large groups of mostly white males near vulnerable populations of women left unprotected, and the perpetrators unlikely to be prosecuted, and even less likely to be convicted.
What steps can be taken to prevent gender-based violence and end these risks?
The risk of violence that any one woman faces is a threat to all women.
The history that renders Indigenous women disposable and invisible engenders vulnerabilities that attract predators. But, the opportunity to improve the value of women overall is greatest where gaps in the social status of women are widest. Consequently, policies aimed at teaching history with intentional critical reflection, collecting and reporting accurate data on race-gendered violence reliably, and addressing the “jurisdictional thicket” that hinders investigations on and near reservations are crucial to the process of addressing race-gendered violence. Addressing this issue with an intersectional lens will improve the safety of all women.
In an effort to address the erasure of Native American victims of gender-based violence in particular, Savanna’s Act 2020 compels the DOJ to develop protocols to improve the identification, reporting, investigations, and response to missing and murdered Indigenous people, particularly women.