Justice Department Forms Task Force on Violence Against American Indian Women

By Rachel Walden — March 2, 2011

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the formation of the Violence Against Women Federal and Tribal Prosecution Task Force to address the staggering rates of violence against American Indian women. The Justice Department estimates that 1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped in her lifetime, and most victims who do report their assaults describe their attackers as non-Native.

The task force is composed of six assistant U.S. Attorneys and six tribal attorneys, along with other DOJ, health care and law enforcement officials. Within a year of convening, the task force is expected to:

[…] produce a trial practice manual on the federal prosecution of violence against women offenses in Indian Country. In the short term, the Task Force will explore current issues raised by professionals in the field, and recommend “best practices” in prosecution strategies involving domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

While this issue certainly deserves attention, I can’t help but be cautious about a Justice Department-led approach. The U.S. government doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to violence and Native Americans. Part of the problem stems from issues of jurisdiction. In 2007, Amnesty International released a report (more here) that outlined the various barriers to justice that these women face, noting: “The United States government has created a complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that often allows perpetrators to rape with impunity — and in some cases effectively creates jurisdictional vacuums that encourage assaults.”

INCITE! provides this toolkit, Police Violence Against Native Women and Native Trans & Two Spirit People, which outlines history and current problems of law enforcement and military violence against American Indian women. As the organization makes clear, decreasing and preventing violence against American Indian women is not simply a matter of increasing law enforcement:

Native women and Native Two Spirit, transgender, and gender nonconforming people are subjected to gender-specific forms of law enforcement violence, such as racial profiling, physical abuse, sexual harassment and abuse, and failure to respond or abusive responses to reports of violence.

We hope the DOJ effort will represent, as one task force member suggested, “the Obama administration’s willingness to take seriously the crimes of rape and domestic violence against Native American women,” and that genuine safety improvements for American Indian women take place.

This issue has been in the Canadian news recently as well. According to the Abbostford News, a British Columbia newspaper, “The Native Women’s Association of Canada reports that 582 indigenous women and girls have disappeared or were murdered over the last five years.” The Canadian government has recently provided $2 million to the NWAC for an initiative to “help communities understand, prevent and respond to violence against aboriginal women and girls.”

See resources linked from our previous posts for additional background reading on this topic.

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