The Colonial And Racist Roots in Sexual Violence Towards Native Americans


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to the Wessex Scene as a whole.

American colonialism has persistently stripped the tribal sovereignty of and discriminated against, indigenous American people. This includes sexual assault and violence against Native American women, with a US Department of Justice study on violence against women concluding that more than 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped during their lifetime.

In at least 86% of reported cases of rape or sexual assault against native women, the perpetrators are non-native men who have virtual criminal impunity – a symptom of America’s ingrained racism in the post-colonial era. Overall in the USA, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Policy Research Centre, American indigenous people are at least 2 times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes compared with all other races. Meanwhile, in another US Department of Justice study, over 90% of Native Americans who had experienced sexual assault reported being assaulted by a non-tribal member. It seems that the fictional events of Louise Erdrich’s award-winning novel The Round House, which centres around a 13-year-old Native American coming to terms with his mother’s rape, are all too possible in real life.

Although natives are recognised as American citizens under the Congressional 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, Native American women are subject to legislative loopholes that express otherwise. Serious crimes or offences involving non-natives are not subjected to local tribal courts and are passed over to federal courts, so reports of these crimes lie in the hands of US attorneys. Consequently, tribal courts are left helpless and unable to try non-natives, while US attorneys have generally declined to prosecute the large majority of cases involving sexual abuse and related matters. Non-native criminals on native land are left with virtually zero repercussions due to a failing and racially-biased legal system. Native American women on reserved lands are left with an ‘open season’ of sexual and racial violence against themselves, as Mary Annette Pember, member of the Red Cliff Tribe of Wisconsin Ojibwe, has described it, which has been ‘going on for a very, very long time’.

‘Colonialism is itself structured by the logic of sexual violence. Furthermore, this logic of sexual violence continues to structure U. S. policies toward Native peoples today. Consequently, anti‐sexual violence and anti‐colonial struggles cannot be separated.’ – Andrea Smith, academic. 

The situation is reflective of America’s historical context of the colonisation of the native peoples from American land. As is the case in America, racism is woven into the biopolitical and social body of the state. As noted by Kate Shanley, native people embody an ever-going present absence’ in the US colonial imagination. This ‘absence’ is the reinforcement of the narrative that native people are vanishing anyway, which is thus utilised to justify the American conquest of native peoples’ land. In turn, this stimulates the metaphorical stereotyping of native people ‘into a pollution of which the colonial body must purify itself’, even in the modern era. This is no more clearly demonstrated by cases such as the mass sterilisation of indigenous people in the 1970’s, and today’s high rates of physical and sexual violence towards native people.

To conclude, it’s clear that indigenous people shouldn’t be excluded from conversations on sexual assault. To ignore them and the intersectionality of rape and racism would limit our ability to comprehend and change the discourse of sexual assault and rape. More importantly, this reminds us that there’s a wider historical, racial, and colonial context to this. Sexual violence is used as a tool, derived from the days of Christopher Columbus and the practices of the colonial era, to still continue the racist and post-colonial endeavours of diminishing the tribal sovereignty of the native people.


International Editor for 2018/19 | Writes mainly International/Opinion pieces

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