“I Just Feel Unimportant:” The Failure of Federal Indigenous Policy

“I Just Feel Unimportant:” The Failure of Federal Indigenous Policy

Sam Gordon, Editor in Chief

From late summer to early fall of 2021, Gabby Petito’s story dominated American news cycles. Gabby was a vlogger who was reported missing following a cross-country road trip with her fiance – the primary suspect. Coverage of her case resulted in important heightened awareness of domestic violence issues and conversations about intimate partner violence. But, advocates for Indigenous women wondered why a white woman had become the poster child for missing women even though Indigenous women face disproportionate rates of kidnapping, murder, and sexual violence. America’s captivation with missing white women like Gabby leaves Native women in the dust. One in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime, a rate the US Department of Justice reports is two-and-a-half times higher than for white women. On top of that, the vast majority of their rapists are non-Native men (Crane-Murdoch). This crisis has its history in the violent removal, forced assimilation, and denigration of indigeneity that has occurred since before the founding of the United States. Colonial ideas of the subhuman, savage, and untrustworthy Native woman have contaminated federal policy and as a result, created a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

Colonial explorers initiated the over-sexualization of Native women, setting the precedent for racist policy today. After returning to the Caribbean, one of Columbus’s associates,  Michele de Cuneo, wrote a boastful passage in his journal describing his assault on an Indigenous woman. Historian Albert L. Hurtado argues that this rhetoric aligns with a conquest mentality, where colonizers believed that their “fear and hatred of Indians…justified the rape of Indian women” (Deer “Three” 92). They saw Native people as inferior, maybe even subhuman, meaning their bodies held no intrinsic value and could be violated without remorse. Sexual violence perpetrated by colonizers was less about receiving sexual pleasure and more about asserting power and dominance. Christian missionaries spread this narrative of Native inferiority. Virginian minister Alexander Whitaker wrote of his disgust of the sinful nature of Native people in 1613: “[t]hey live naked in bodie [sic], as if their shame of their sinne [sic] deserved no covering” (Smith 10). In this way, settlers positioned the conquest of Native land as G-d’s way of correcting sin, paving the way for the holy colonizer to take over the land. Because of their assumed purity, colonizers felt emboldened to exercise any and all powers over Native territory. In their colonies, the Spanish established an ecomienda system where they demanded resources from their Indigenous subjects alongside access to their bodies. Therefore, sexual violence and weaponization of Indigenous sexuality were exercised as tools of conquest and reasoning for the disposition of Native peoples in the colonial era. 

These settlements grew into a nation, maintaining the hierarchies established during the colonial era. In the centuries following first contact, the federal government has continued to craft policies that keep Native people subservient to settlers. This is particularly evident in policy pertaining to tribal courts. For example, the ironically named Indian Civil Rights Act, passed in 1968, imposed a sentencing cap of one year per offense for those sentenced in tribal courts. The bill additionally mandated that tribal court systems abide by the Bill of Rights, but the addition of this limitation on tribal powers proves that the federal government believes that Indigenous people “needed more oversight than the Constitution” (Mantegani 325) because their courts lacked the integrity of western ones. Although the government did not use the exact same language as Christian missionaries and colonizers, the internal messaging remains the same: white people and culture reign superior over Native practices. While in 2010 this cap was extended to three years, this barely makes a difference in the eyes of a survivor who, outside of Native territory, would be able to see her offender sentence for a much longer period. Sarah Deer, a MacArthur fellow and renowned tribal legal expert, argues that the reason many Native women do not come forward with their experiences is because of the possibility that their “offender will return without intervention to address violent behavior” (Deer “Punishment and Tribal Law”). Alternatives such as banishment or fines also fail as they allow an offender to easily repeat their actions. Despite advances such as the recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 2022, which now allows for tribal governments to exercise jurisdiction over many crimes committed on their own land, jurisdictional powers mean little if tribal courts are unable to sentence criminals. There is little use for increased jurisdiction if women do not feel as if they can take advantage of these newfound powers safely. Deer asserts that she has yet to hear “an adequate explanation (other than funding)” for the three-year limit (Deer “Punishment and Tribal Law”). However, any court funding deficiencies should have been resolved by implementing the funding mechanisms like federal reimbursement included in the 2022 Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. There does not seem to be any reason for these caps other than that the federal government wrongly sees Native courts as fundamentally inferior.

Dehumanizing policy toward Native women extends beyond the over-supervision of their courts. The relationship between Indigenous governments and the federal government is one based on the trust doctrine established by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1831 (Anderson and Parker). In exchange for protection and maintenance, the trusteeship mandates that Native people give up the right to their land. This results in the federal government consistently treating tribal governments as children and preventing them from making decisions that would economically benefit their communities. As an example, the lack of property rights for Indigenous people on reservations makes it virtually impossible for Native people to take out mortgages or sell their homes because banks are not allowed to own the land. Owning a house allows a person to use it as collateral when taking out other loans, but mainly functions as one of the best methods to procure wealth (Schaefer Riley). Without property rights, Indigenous people cannot take economic advantage of their land, creating quagmires of poverty and homelessness on reservations: “[a]ccording to the [Bureau of Indian Affairs], unemployment on the Crow Reservation is 46.5 percent” (Schaefer Riley). Economic difficulties exacerbate preexisting vulnerabilities for Indigenous women, as unemployment and homelessness often force Native women into prostitution or abusive relationships in exchange for necessary goods and shelter. These circumstances increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing assault. A study conducted by the William Mitchell College of Law interviewed 105 Indigenous women in Minnesota currently participating in prostitution and found that “92% had been raped” and “98% were currently or previously homeless” (Farley et al 3). Furthermore, women without financial security cannot possibly afford the legal and emotional support necessary to pursue instances of assault in court. Issues with economic and employment discrimination against Native women go beyond what the federal government can control, but preventing Native people from obtaining property rights exists as one of the most significant obstacles to economic justice. 

The trusteeship relationship has additionally allowed for the federal government to issue widespread permitting of pipelines that run directly through sacred Native land and bring dangers to women. Impacting Native burial sites and the health of surrounding communities, these extractive industries also bring with them a massive uptick in sexual violence and human trafficking, making the surrounding area unsafe, especially for young people and women. These trends likely result from the fact that the primary workforce of these industries is men. They are usually set up in large “man camps,” which quickly become danger zones for any woman passing by. Mysti Babineau, a climate activist and member of the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota, describes how she had to take extra precautions as a young person growing up near the construction of the Enbridge Pipeline: “I remember being told I can’t go out by myself and especially don’t go drive anywhere at night and don’t go to the bars” (Bernd). Studies examining areas known for extractive industries back up Mysti’s experiences. In 2018, The Urban Indian Health Institute reported that three of the top six cities for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls cases coincide with “[c]ities with heavy fracking, mining, and oil refineries” (Johnston 17). Additionally, men arrive in such large numbers that already under-funded law enforcement becomes even more strained. Stances such as transferring jurisdiction and funding tribal police appear meaningless in the face of sentencing caps and the continuation of pipeline permitting. The Biden administration may have taken small actions like shutting down the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota, but it continues to allow permits for Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project despite resistance from tribal advocates. These industries pose a risk to any young woman who lives in the surrounding area. Still, because the area surrounding reservations are prime spots for extraction, Native women become target zero. Federal government control over Native land continues to put Indigenous women in harm’s way. 

The federal government is largely able to continue to harm Native women through a giant blindspot in media coverage of Indigenous issues. Gabby Petito’s case received national attention, with news crews following the police’s every move and amateur detectives digging into and sharing news about the case on Tik Tok and Instagram. Contrastingly, when Tlingit Tribe member Teri Deschene’s seventeen-year-old daughter disappeared, she had an extremely difficult time getting news attention for the case, even after her daughter had been missing for over a year: “[a]ll I got in my pocket is…social media. That’s all I got. I don’t get any help from any other place. I begged. I just feel…unimportant” (Golden). Deschene’s not alone. Stories of young Indigenous women rarely, if ever, receive massive media attention, preventing the public from understanding the scope and calamity of the crisis. Despite massive media and cultural pushes to raise awareness about sexual violence, it is unclear that Native women reap any of those benefits. A University of South Dakota student surveyed her peers and discovered a disparity in people’s awareness of violence against young white women versus violence against Native women. Participants cited familiarity with Mollie Tibbet – a white college student abducted while running – because of the intense media coverage surrounding her case. However, when asked about the disappearance of Native actress Misty Upham, “[a] majority of survey participants (n=109) had never heard of her disappearance and only a few (n=7) had heard of this case from a major news outlet” (Clement 56).  This finding should come with little surprise. Native people are already left out of most media, and the erasure continues even pertaining to issues where they are the primary targets. For the few times where Indigenous cases are covered, many of these stories are more focused on disparaging the victim. The Urban Indigenous Health Institute analyzed 934 articles written about 129 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls cases and found that “46 media outlets had violent language in their coverage…(31%). Thirty-six media outlets (25%) used violent language in 50% or more of the cases they covered, and 22 (15%) used violent language in 100% of the cases they covered” (“Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” 19). This violent language includes references to substance abuse, the victim’s criminal record or participation in sex work, and language that makes excuses for offenders or generally victim blames. When the media pushes a narrative of victim-blaming, Americans miss out on important information regarding the pervasiveness of the crisis and become less willing to advocate for Indigenous people. This narrative also clouds the vision of legal officers, making it more difficult for Indigenous women to be taken seriously when they report. As Indigenous women continue to experience violence, inadequate media coverage prevents people from recognizing the scope of the crisis or even recognizing that a crisis is occurring. 

The United States has a long history rife with the dehumanization of Native people, particularly Native women. Unfortunately, this history remains ongoing as the influences of colonialist ideas of lack of native personhood remain consistent in American institutions. These perceptions influence restrictive and dismissive government action that takes away Native sovereignty over their land and puts Native women directly in harm’s way. The media’s failure to shine a light on this crisis allows the federal government to continue to fail Native women unchecked. Change can only happen if non-Native people show up. Join them in pressuring representatives to deny pipeline permits and abolish sentencing caps, join them in engaging with Indigenous media and news like Indian Country News, join them in demanding accurate United States history curricula that teach children about colonization, and join them in funding organizations like Urban Indigenous Collective and Sovereign Bodies Institute that provide crucial aid to survivors. Gabby Petito’s body was found in Wyoming, a state where 700 Indigenous women have been reported as missing in the past decade (Helena). Until the masses of the United States band together and demand better for Indigenous women, this number will only continue to rise.


Works Cited

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