Scholar Sarah Deer Speaks on Victims’ Rights
Issue   |   Tue, 04/17/2018 - 21:52
Photo courtesy of Sarah Wishloff ’19
University of Kansas professor Sarah Deer in the Powerhouse on April 10 about her research, which focuses on federal Native American law and its intersection with the rights of victims of sexual violence.

Sarah Deer from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation gave a talk titled “Sovereignty of the Soul: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America” in the Powerhouse on April 10. The talk was co-sponsored by Sexual Respect Education, the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect, the Multicultural Resource Center, the English department, the Queer Resource Center and the Women’s and Gender Center.

Deer was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2014 and is currently a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies and public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on the intersection of sexual violence victims’ rights and federal Native American law. Her most recent book, “The Beginning and the End of Rape,” has won several awards including the Labriola Center’s American Indian National Book Award.

Amanda Collings Vann, the associate director of health education and sexual respect, opened the event by acknowledging that the town of Amherst is located on the indigenous homeland of the Nonotuck Indians and neighbors other Native American nations. Vann also listed other events that will be occurring on campus in April as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Deer started her talk by speaking a few words in the Muscogee people’s language, which she said she is slowly learning. She also acknowledged the indigenous lands that Amherst stands on, saying that “their absence makes our presence possible.”

Moving on, she shared some data released by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2016, saying that “we have to know what the problem is before we can possibly figure out a solution.” According to the study, over 84 percent of Native women have experienced some form of violence. 56 percent of Native women have experienced sexual violence, the highest rates in the country.

Another data point from the 2016 DOJ report that Deer provided was related to interracial crime. “Most violent crime in the United States is what we call intraracial, which means that if you’re a white victim, statistically, your perpetrator is more likely than not to be white, and that goes for pretty much any race in the United States,” she said. The only exception to this rule are Native Americans, who report that most of their attackers are not a member of their own race. “So we have a crisis on our hands,” Deer said. “My goal … has been to try to figure out what we do about it because it is not acceptable.”

She then talked about the concept of sovereignty because it “very much relates to why the rates are so high, and thus, the solutions have to lie here at some level.” Sovereignty, simply defined, is the concept that “a government has the power to make its own laws and to govern by them,” Deer said. In the United States, sovereignty is often taken for granted and very rarely perceived to be under attack. In contrast, “when it comes to tribal nations, sovereignty is something that has been under attack from very early on,” she said.

Deer also talked about self-sovereignty, defining it as “the ability to make decisions about who comes into our body space, who is going to be allowed to touch us, who is going to be allowed to make decisions about what happens to our body.”

Being under the control of the U.S. justice system has not always been the case, however: tribal nations had sovereignty for many years, and had jurisdiction over all crimes such as domestic violence, sexual assault and homicide. Because the tribal nations had “good systems,” they had “rare or low rates of violence,” Deer said. Most of the nations were “victim-centered” and had restorative justice, meaning that the victim or the victim’s family was the focus of the resolution of the crisis. In contrast, western justice systems pit the state against the defendant, and “the victims don’t really have a place at the table, maybe until sentencing.”

Deer then talked about her time in law school, when she was interested in studying how her tribe had traditionally responded to gender violence. Of interest to her were the journals of William Bartram, a white American who lived in the southeastern United States in the late 18th century. In his journals, Bartram was struck by the fact that he did not see any gendered violence among the Cherokee people. Deer also found her tribe’s first written rape law, dated to 1824, which decreed that only women can be victims of gendered crime and that, for victims, “what she say it be law.”

Deer realized that the high rates of sexual assault in Native American tribes are a fairly recent phenomenon. “If you think about it, a civilization can’t really sustain itself for millennia if 80 percent of the women in that community are traumatized,” she said. After she discovered this, her next question was, “how did we go from communities where victims were sort of centered and crime was rare, to today, having one of the highest rape rates not just in the United States, but in the world?”

Deer decided to examine U.S. policies and laws that impacted Native Americans to find the root problem and search for a solution. First, she researched the Trail of Tears, which was “not one trail of tears, which is sort of how we think about it. It is many, many, many trails, and much more than tears.” Specifically, Deer was interested in the prevalence of sexual violence during the march. “When you’re being forced by the military away from your homelands, you have no legal system to rely on,” Deer said.

Another major policy that “saturated the Native American communities with sexual violence” were boarding schools, which Native American children were forced to attend in order to assimilate to U.S. culture. Deer said that many of the boarding schools were “a hotbed of sexual abuse,” and that survivors of this system are speaking out today about this issue.

Deer also discussed laws that took sovereignty away from tribal nations, like the Major Crimes Act, the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish. These three pieces of legislation and court rulings took away power from tribal courts and gave the U.S. federal system jurisdiction over certain crimes committed by Native Americans in Native territory. Talking about the effects of these rulings, Deer said: “When you have a system that cannot hold people accountable, what is the message? The message to perpetrators is ‘I can get away with it,’ and the message to survivors is ‘no one will do anything to help me.’ And … I think that this perfect storm of legal problems explains why Native people suffer from such high rates of violence.” Deer also mentioned the high costs attached to the criminal justice system, saying that most tribes simply can’t afford to support their own systems.

In her conclusion, Deer talked about recent victories for the Native American justice system, citing laws and cases such as the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, which increased tribal sentencing maximums from one to three years, the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization , which made it possible for certain tribes to prosecute non-Native Americans for domestic violence and Dollar General v. Mississippi Choctaw, which ruled that tribes have the power to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans.

The talk was followed by a question and answer session, which covered topics such as indigenous people in the global context, examples of Native American resistance and restorative justice.

In an interview after the talk, Vann said that “one of the things that we’re trying to do with the conversation around sexual violence and sexual respect on campus is to really amplify voices that have been silenced over time. And so I wanted people to hear [Deer’s] voice and the great work that she’s been doing because I think it helps our students, when they leave, to think about whatever career they’re choosing to do, how can they pay attention to voices like Professor Deer’s, and use that in their work moving forward,” she said. “How can they amplify voices that have been silenced and that have been doing the work for a really long time?”

Lauren Simpson ’21, a peer advocate of sexual respect, said that events such as these are important because “issues of sexual violence in general tend to be very stigmatized. And because these conversations are often difficult to have, they get swept under the rug, and when that happens, we kind of shame survivors into silence because we’re creating this culture in our society where we’re saying like, the stories of survivors don’t matter and their experiences don’t matter because we’re choosing to ignore them.”

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