Native and indigenous women have cried out for decades against the high rates of violence inflicted against them. And this year, they’re getting louder: many are running for elective office, and others are pushing for policy changes.
Native women advocates say this violence continues in part because of lax law enforcement, poor record-keeping, and a decades-old Supreme Court decision.
Annita Lucchesi of Eureka manages the largest database tracking missing and murdered North American indigenous women. She has listed about 3,000 cases that she regularly updates. And she does it pretty much on her own.
“It’s just me and my little sister,” Lucchesi said.
Lucchesi is a descendent of the Cheyenne Tribe and a survivor of domestic violence. She stumbled onto this project accidentally when she searched for an accurate list of these cases, which doesn’t exist.
“There are plenty of lists available online, but none of them match,” Lucchesi said. “None of them are updated frequently. And none of them are very thorough.”
So Lucchesi began compiling the data herself. She made public records requests through policing agencies, and she mined social media and newspapers. The spreadsheet includes basic facts about the victims: their Native American name, the English translation of their name, their date of birth, and their tribal affiliation.
“It also includes information on the case itself: when and where it happened, if any violence was done to her body after she was killed, if this was an incidence of domestic violence or sexual assault or if she was a trafficking victim, transgender, anything like that” Luchessi said. “Then information on the perpetrator: race and conviction status, gender, relationship to the victim.”
Luchessi says she wishes the federal government tracked this information; maybe, through research, it could find potential solutions. But it doesn’t. Not until 2010 did U.S. Department of Justice study the issue. It showed that 4 in 5 Native women have experienced violence in their lives. And 97 percent of those assaults were committed by non-Natives.
For Luchessi, the issue stems from American culture.
“We live in a society that really dehumanizes Indigenous women,” she said. “We’ve had generations that have learned from the media and from policy that you can do whatever you want to a Native woman and get away with it.”
She’s referring to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision that took away tribes’ ability to arrest or prosecute non-Native members who commit crimes on their land. That means if a non-Native man were to rape or murder a woman on a reservation, the tribe essentially can’t touch him.
Attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, says the surrounding neighbors know that.
“You talk to some folks and they know, the folks on the street know if you go commit a crime as a non-Native on this reservation, the tribal government can’t arrest you,” she said.
So when someone on a reservation calls the police, who responds? That depends on the tribe, which state it’s in, and the crime itself. But most of the time, the response is slow.
“I know multiple examples of women living in tribes in Alaska, and they’ve been raped or someone has been injured, they call the police and the state police show up maybe three days later,” Nagle said.
It didn’t always used to be this way. Tribal governments once had full jurisdiction — that is, until the Supreme Court ruled that tribes don’t have power over non-Natives, even when they commit crimes on reservations. That decision wasn’t revisited until 2013, when federal courts said some tribes can handle domestic violence cases. But that’s all.
“It doesn’t cover stranger sexual assault or anything else,” said Brent Leonhard, tribal counsel for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
The Umatilla reservation has been testifying in front of Congress asking for a full restoration of tribal court power. They’re apart of the few tribes that can handle domestic violence cases involving non-Natives. So far, it’s been working out for them. Leonhard says the number of women reporting their assaults has jumped by about 300 percent. Almost all of them led to convictions.
“So it’s been a huge improvement in terms of just victims coming forward, and hopefully because they feel safer and they are safer to do so,” Leonhard said.
There are policies in the works to restore some tribal court power, but none of them are a full restoration. Even in its 1978 decision, the Supreme Court recognized the high rates of crimes committed by non-natives on reservations, and it invited Congress to weigh in on the matter.
That was 40 years ago.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that tribes can’t just prosecute all crime,” Leonhard said. “It just seems ludicrous to me. ”
Still, the Umatilla tribe and Native women advocates will continue asking Congress to reverse that decades-old court decision. Perhaps after the midterms, they’ll be testifying in front of Native congresswomen.