Why Violence Against Native Women is Our Issue: Native Men Need to Take Responsibility

Recently, President Obama signed into law the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that included provisions allowing tribal law enforcement to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes against Native women on reservation lands. Indeed, as many supporters of the bill have argued, this is an historic moment for tribes and Native women who are the victims of sexual violence and rape. What is more important, however, is VAWA brought to light the epidemic rates of sexual violence and rape that Native women experience and have historically experienced. Native women have become the central focus of VAWA as advocates and victims of sexual violence and rape. But where do Native men stand on VAWA and the epidemic violence against women in our communities, especially Native men who are perpetrators and protectors of perpetrators of sexual violence and rape?

Many of the statistics used to bolster support for VAWA’s reauthorization cite that one in three Native women (34.1%) will be sexually violated; in at least 86% of rape cases, perpetrators were found to be non-Native men; Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetime when compared to other women in the U.S.; many Native women living on the reservation do not report incidents of rape and sexual violence for fear of retaliation or revictimization; and, that these statistics reflect the lived experiences of urban Native women as opposed to the lived experiences of rural Native women, which statistics do not exist or are hard to attain. The last part of how these statistics were obtained is the most important–these statistics reflect the lived experiences of urban Native women rather than rural Native women. That means in large part that the lived experiences of Native women living on rural reservations, for example, go unaccounted.

Yes, these statistics are appalling, considering that many Native people live off-the reservation and urban areas. But what about those who live on or near reservations in rural parts of Indian Country? Where are these statistics and why are they not being talked about?

If we applied the one in three statistic to Native reservations and rural communities that are geographically isolated, would the 86% statistic also apply for non-Native male perpetrators? It seems highly unlikely unless non-Native men are driving to reservations and rural communities, committing rapes and sexual assaults and leaving. I know for a fact this happens, but I also know for a fact that within these rural communities that it does not happen at the rate of 86% of all cases. I put the statistics of all Native women who are victims and survivors of sexual violence and rape into question that 86% of all perpatrators are non-Native men, especially in rural Native communities.

If a Native woman is raped or sexually assaulted on the reservations, it is appropriate to assume that it was committed by a Native man, most likely a man who is close to his victim like a relative, boyfriend, husband, or family friend. One commentator argues that the myth purported by these statistics is damaging because it holds up the assumption that “non-Native men rape and batter but Native men don’t.”

For reservations of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, Pine Ridge, Standing Rock, and Rosebud have all come under scrutiny over how tribal law enforcement and tribal governments refuse to adequately address the epidemic violence against women. Sexual violence and rape against Native women is not limited to these communities. Often times, too, Native men who are perpetrators, convicted or not, occupy leadership positions within the community that make it harder for violence against women to be addressed because it directly implicates them. But our silence as men also directly implicates us.

Male relatives and friends of mine have also used the logic of innoculating themselves from assuming the responsibility of having deal with what they call “women’s issues.” I have also heard Native male leaders charge Native women as imposing “colonial ideologies” onto Native communities as “feminists.” Most disparaging, however, is the comment of “keep it at home.” Well, unfortunately, that is where rape and sexual violence often happens–at home!

Moreover, labeling rape and sexual violence in this manner is akin to the colonizers’ logic when they say things like “Go back to the rez!”; “It happened in the past!”; “Why blame men? Women should step up.”; “They asked for it.”; etc. If Native history has taught us anything, it is that at this contemporary moment our struggle is no longer to find out who we are as Native peoples; it is for the colonizers to find out who they are and how their role as colonizers further disposses Native people and Native land. Using that same logic in the case of violence against Native women, as Native men we need to step back and take a look at ourselves and find out who we are as oppressors, rapists, and perpatrators of sexual violence.

Ignoring this is equivalant to the colonial logics that we are somehow exempt from judgment because these things may or may not be true, that they happen elsewhere but not here, that they are “women’s issues,” that it should be kept within families, etc. All of these logics promote the public secret that everyone knows. Our Nations are made in the home. If rape and violence against women are happening at home, then they need to be addressed in public, in our tribal governments and public gatherings. These are not domestic issues perpetrated by a few bad apples if it is affecting one out three women and also in turn puts half of our population at risk.

Are we addressing the role men have in perpatrating rape and violence toward Native women? If that is not the case, then all of the rhetoric about “sovereignty” and land struggles is null. We are, then, just as bad as our colonizers because we are not addressing our role in the vicitimization of half our population! Consider that the next time you hear someone talk about genocide. What about half of our population who are at risk? This should be the number one priority of our men and our communities. Men need to step and own up to our responsibility. Violence against women is a Native men’s issue and we need to start recognizing that more and more if we are to effectively decolonize our Nations.

I am constantly reminded of relatives asking me, “Would your ancestors recognize you?” Men, keep that in mind as rapes and sexual violence against Native women is kept at its epidemic proportions. Ask yourself, what are we doing as men, as perpatrators, to stop this? And why is this not a number one priority in our struggles for decolonization? We have to hold ourselves accountable.

Hecetu Welo!

First Nations Sculpture Garden: Rapid City and the Politics of Stolen Ground

Perpetually frustrated for what passes as journalism in the Rapid City Journal (RCJ), I recently submitted a letter to the editor regarding the 17 March 2013 story titled “Spokeswoman: Native sculpture garden location is not up for debate.” Although I submitted my letter to the editor several days ago, I have received no response for the RCJ (nor any response for previously submitted letters to the editor). So, I will expand upon the 200 word essay I wrote. Original essay below.

The “spokeswoman” in the March 17 article about the proposed Native sculptor garden is preeminent Native scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn of many important works on Native issues, particularly for the Lakotayapi and the Dakotayapi. Many commenters have taken issue with Cook-Lynn’s statements about the park not being “a place to take little white third- and fourth-graders to learn about history” and also not considering another location for the park.

First, as evident with Canada’s recent #idlenomore movement, the burden of “proving” that the long history of federal treaties made with the U.S. nation-state have been violated and created the socioeconomic devastation and land dispossession for Natives has long since passed. Read any book on Native history and you will find the proof you need.

Second, if education is merely learning that history, then it has failed. Education is pointless if it maintains the status quo and does not challenge settler society to understand their role in perpetuating these continuing conditions.

So why should this park continue forward? Cook-Lynn makes the point: to tell settler society “who we are and who we’ve been.” Consider that a gift because, frankly, Natives do not owe settler society much more.

The “spokeswoman” of the story happens to be Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, preeminent Dakota scholar and writer from Crow Creek, SD. The RCJ overshadows Cook-Lynn’s lifelong achievements as a Native scholar with her insistence on the creating the park at the location that was historically Native trust land and the tagline: “It’s not a place to take little white third- and fourth-graders to learn about Native history.” Many commenters and critics of the park’s location called foul for the latter statement as divisive and reverse racism. Yet, these critics of Cook-Lynn’s statements fail to see the larger picture and concept of building a sculpture garden on this historically contested ground within a historically contested border town.

As I have thought over the definitions of a border town, I have come to the conclusion that border towns like Rapid City do not easily fit the common perception of how a border town functions and manifests itself. First of all, Rapid City or Mni Luzahan sits at the heart of the 95 million acres of treaty designated territory under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that was never legally ceded to the United States. Therefore, Mni Luzahan is not necessarily “near” a Native community, it is occupying space in the heart of Lakota Territory. Second, the Native population has historically been displaced within the city limits on several occasions, whether it was through forced removal as Cook-Lynn points out or through natural causes such as the 1972 Rapid City Flood.


Strangely, the Lakota do in fact retain some trust land benefits and recognition throughout the history of forced removal in the form of a section 8 housing district known as Lakota Homes in the North Rapid City (which has also become an historically large Native neighborhood). Nonetheless, Rapid City Natives remain dispossessed and disenfranchised. More than half of Rapid City’s Native population live in poverty, as well as 48% of  65,000 of South X‘s Native population living below the poverty threshold. This makes Rapid City the poorest city in the U.S. among other cities significantly populated with Natives, as well as South X leading the U.S. with five of the top ten poorest counties in the U.S.–all which are located on Native reservations.

This information dispels the myth of reservations being concentrations of poverty and opens up Rapid City for scrutiny, something Cook-Lynn stresses. The location of the proposed sculpture garden would serve “as a powerful symbol”, being on land Native Rapid City residents were forcefully removed from.

As a former resident of Rapid City and having actually lived two blocks from the location of the proposed sculpture garden, I find it ironic that there is question about the proposed location. The location itself is at Halley Park, which is situated like an island sandwiched between two major roads. The park consists only of few landscaping details, trees, and a trimmed lawn. Otherwise, it sits in a prominent downtown location without really being used for anything.

It seems, however, that the location, being unused city land and never formally ceded Indian trust land, would, indeed, be a symbolic location for the proposed sculpture garden. Also, the proposed busts of prominent Dakota and Lakota people includes Vine Deloria, Jr., Black Elk, Oscar Howe, and Charles Eastman. Four more busts have yet to be determined, but hopefully they will include Dakota women like Zitkala Sa.

Lastly, what Cook-Lynn has been criticized the most for her statement that the park would not function as a place to take little white third- and fourth-graders. Most commenters and critics feel that Cook-Lynn’s statements were threatening and racist towards little white children, yet they fail to see the irony in such statements after critics proposed moving the park’s location to Founder’s Park. Cook-Lynn’s statements, however, do reflect a criticism of how Native people and their history in Rapid City is up for grabs as something that should be made consumable for the masses, while never requiring Native history to hold or be told with its own dignity. Cook-Lynn’s criticism is that Native history cannot be held to the standard of mainstream settler society and that is palatable, sanitized, and made safe for the consumption of little children. That is not the point and puts an unfair burden on Native people to reconstruct and fit their history into narratives of equal rights and liberal multiculturalism, which given the gross disparities among Natives and settlers in Rapid City only further perpetuates Native dispossession and erasure. This proposed park, rightly so, upsets liberal settler colonial sensibilities. So don’t bring your children to a rated-R movie.

Cook-Lynn is a courageous Dakota Winyan who is made out to be an angry racist Indian woman, unwilling to budge or compromise. This characterization of female Native intellectuals is very condescending. Ask yourself how has the RCJ portrayed Native women in its news coverage? In this instance a highly honored and recognized Dakota intellectual is referred to as merely a “spokeswoman.” Does settler society have typecast parts for how Native women appear and are recognized with the public? In this instance, Cook-Lynn is portrayed as an angry woman of color who is against compromise and undermining the white liberal sensibilities of Rapid City residents. Yet, much more is at stake.

“South Dakota” no more!

After reading South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard signed into law a bill that would allow teachers to carry firearms in public schools, I found myself cursing the state of South Dakota and its backward logics. I started to think of all the times in my life I’ve found myself cursing “South Dakota” as an abstract idea–the state, its people, its border towns, its good ol’ boy attitude, its self-congratulating history, its violent colonial logics and laws, etc. Then I started thinking about everything I loved about the idea of South Dakota, which included the place I call my home, my friends, my family, my allies, the land, the history of struggle against settler colonial oppression, the songs, the stories, the hardships, the winters, the long drives, the hospitality, etc. Then I though harder about how were “South” and “Dakota” commensurable?

What was then Dakota Territory from 1861 to 1889 was split into two states that became North Dakota and South Dakota. The territory and states derived their names from the D/N/Lakota Oyate (or the Oceti Sakowin Oyate). “Dakota” or “Nakota” or “Lakota” is commonly understood to mean “ally” or “the people” or “the nation.” Adding the “wo” in front of “D/N/Lakota” to become “Wolakota” sums up the philosophy of the Oceti Sakowin way of being. Wolakota means that which is balance and harmonious (human and non-human), the D/N/Lakota way of life, way of being, and way of knowing. It is the core philosophy of how one relates to the rest of the world with dignity and respect, honoring relationships and the seeking of balance in one’s life and with all of this material reality (which includes everything from the water, the birds, your human relations, stones, the land, etc.). To acknowledge this centering of relationships in your everyday is the very philosophy of Mitakuye Oyasin.

So how does the state of South Dakota honor these ways of knowing by adopting the name “Dakota”? The state has had little respect for the D/N/Lakota Oyate, given its history of land dispossession and attempts to usurp treaty rights and the very existence of the D/N/Lakota Oyate. The state has not and is not an “ally” or representative of “the people.” I could go into a diatribe of the state’s history of dispossession and hostility towards the D/N/Lakota Oyate, but I have committed my life’s work to unworking and unsettling those narratives and violent settler colonial logics. Plus, there are many books, published materials, stories, and lived experiences of Native people in the state that serve as testimonials to these injustices.

My point, however, is to address the negative thoughts and word I have flung in the face of the state of South Dakota, which provides a certain contradiction. In lambasting the state, I have included the “Dakota” and in South Dakota to do so. In a twisted logic of my tirades I have in some way defamed and caused harm to the notion of Wolakota and the term of “Dakota” as meaning just the opposite of what the state stands for. Because the state is a settler colonial state that encompasses egregious violences against the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, it is not appropriate that they have assumed OUR name. Therefore, I think is necessary to REFUSE to implicate the Dakota Oyate in the settler colonial violences of the state by REFUSING to put “Dakota” in South Dakota. I don’t know a better way to acknowledge the state without “Dakota” other than to put an “X” in place of it to signal a certain protest and refusal. Much like the “X” has served as a signature of assent in treaty signing, it can be re-worked as a form of refusal to give South X the privilege of perverting what it means to say that one is “Dakota” or “Lakota” or “Nakota.”

Perhaps there is a more clever way of reclaiming “Dakota”. Please share your thoughts.

Hecetu Welo!