Why Sexual Assault Rates Are Higher in Native American Communities

Why Sexual Assault Rates Are Higher in Native American Communities

Author’s Note: This article discusses sexual assault.

Sexual assault is becoming a routine discussion among those who need to hear it most. Whether it’s about prevention (hint: initiators should ask for consent) or how to help survivors, it seems as if more mainstream discussion is empowering people to think or say something. However, there are still many underserved populations who get glossed over.

In 2012, the New York Times ran a piece on sexual assault rates amongst Native American communities. The article details the isolation that many face, along with cultural and community factors that prevent many instigators from being brought to justice. It hauntingly ends with a woman saying that she had only known a few people out of a community of hundreds who were fortunate enough never to have experienced rape – a horror that many cannot imagine.


Some shocking statistics about the community forces us to re-examine the problem we see ongoing. More than one in three Native American women will be victims of rape in their lifetime. At least 70% of perpetrators do not identify as a member of the community, showing a higher rate of interracial sexual violence than other ethnic groups. 96% of those who responded to the survey, identifying as a survivor of sexual assault or rape, said that they had experienced other forms of physical violence.

For one, a problem within the community is the lack of unreported sexual assault and rape cases. This is not exclusive to the Native American population – it seems as if 68% of sexual assaults will go unreported as part of the global community as a whole, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). This can be attributed to a number of obstacles, including stigmatization for being a survivor of rape/sexual assault, lack of perceived physical evidence, and disbelief.

Native Americans are also a historically disenfranchised group within the United States. Tricky agreements between the U.S. and tribal governments make it difficult to figure out how to prosecute those who commit a crime on Native American territory. According to Amnesty International, trying to figure out which government should prosecute the case and how it should be handled often leads to significant, time-consuming delays that ultimately may discourage many from even reporting in the first place. With little to no repercussions, those who commit sexual assault may even feel encouraged to go forth with violation.

There are some programs in place to remedy the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault that run through Native American communities. Under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, we see that the federal government is trying to provide support and resources for those in need of it. However, the problem runs past what the government can do to put a Band-Aid on top of it.

The problem is systemic, going back to the history of violence European settlers and American frontiersmen have committed against and forced the tribes that first inhabited the country. “Scholars support this idea and suggest that violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women directly relates to historical victimization,” writes Futures Without Violence. “According to proponents of this idea, domination and oppression of native peoples increased both economic deprivation and dependency through retracting tribal rights and sovereignty. Consequently, American Indian and Alaska Natives today are believed to suffer from internalized oppression and the normalization of violence.”

It’s clear that the entire national community needs to re-examine the problems that plague the Native American community, as we cherish their well-beings as members of the human race. How can we disrespect and deny them, let alone the many other survivors of sexual assault, the right to justice and dignity?

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.