Indigenous Responses to Violence against Women


Nena Dorane (Diné) puts a face to the victims of violence against indigenous women. Source: Andrea Wiglesworth.

Every February 14th, indigenous women call attention to missing and murdered Native American and Alaska Native women. This year, Yale Sisters of All Nations, a group of indigenous women at Yale, held an art exhibition in the Ezra Stiles Art Gallery in collaboration with Yale Native American Arts Coalition. The show commemorated missing women through various community-produced pieces. At its center were four shawls, every one representing a stage of life: infancy, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Each shawl was made by a different indigenous woman at Yale, displaying traditional designs from four different nations; hanging together they symbolized pan-indigenous solidarity.1 The exhibition mourns the shameful violence against Native women, and seeks to heal with a message: “sisters, aunties, mother, and grandmothers… you are remembered, you are loved, you are missed.”1

This artwork highlights the fact that indigenous women in the United States and Canada go missing and are murdered at a higher rate than women of any other racial or ethnic group. 61% of Native women in the United States have been assaulted at least once, often by a non-Native.1 One in three indigenous women in the United States are raped over the course of their lifetime.1 First Nations women account for only 4% of the female population, but represent 16% of murdered women.2

Violence against Native women constitutes a critical public health issue. Just last year, The National Institute of Justice released a study of American Indians and Alaska Natives that examined rates of sexual violence, physical violence by intimate partners, stalking, and psychological aggression by intimate partners, and found that 84.3% of the women studied had experienced some form of violence, and 55.5% had experienced physical violence from an intimate partner.3 In fact, 82% of men surveyed had also been the victims of violence. 3   According to the CDC, intimate partner violence often leads to severe consequences for victims’ mental and physical health. Women who have been attacked are more likely to suffer from depression, chronic pain, and difficulty sleeping than non-affected women.4 They are also much more likely to report physical symptoms, such as musculoskeletal and genitourinary disorders and respiratory illness.4 Although the response to violence cannot only occur in the domain of public health, the CDC seeks to prevent violence against women.

The extremely high rates of violence against indigenous women date back to colonialism and land dispossession of Native communities. Contrary to some Western depictions, violence against women is not traditional in Native cultures. Most violence against Native women is perpetrated by non-Native men.6 Many Native societies are matrilineal and hold women in high regard, giving them distinctly important social roles.7 Settlers stole Native lands using physical violence, including explicitly gendered violence, and imposed heteropatriarchy on Native societies.8. White settlers frequently assaulted Native women as part of a genocidal campaign intended to clear the land. Centuries later American society still contains still contains traces of a sexualized, dehumanizing perception of Native women, a perception that becomes terrifyingly concretized in today’s high rate of attacks on Native women.5 This violence is not simply due to the actions of individual men; rather, these assaults represent ongoing colonialism and disrespect of tribal sovereignty.5

White American hostility towards Native Americans has expressed itself in diverse outlets over hundreds of years. Efforts to destroy indigenous cultures and forcibly assimilate Native children began in the early 1800s, when residential boarding schools in the United States and Canada separated Native children from their families and banned them from speaking their Native languages in order to “kill the Indian in the child.”8 As late as 1978, 25% of all Indian children in the United States lived in boarding schools, foster care, or non-Native adopted homes.5 These boarding schools were sites of well-documented and rampant sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Even the simple removal of children from their homes tremendously injured traditional familial ties. The intergenerational trauma inflicted by the boarding school system continues to haunt Native communities: many of those who were once forced into boarding schools did not learn traditional parenting models later developed mental illness, both of which have been shown to negatively affect their children.9

A less discussed but equally damaging Western intrusion to Native culture is the imposition of a rigid gender binary. This strict structure particularly impacted Two Spirit people, who use a pan-Indian identification that describes a variety of non-binary gender roles found among indigenous nations and trans-gendered Native people. As a result of forced integration into heteronormative Western culture, these populations are currently at an elevated risk for gender-based violence.10 Before colonization, two-thirds of the over 200 indigenous languages spoken in North America are thought to have contained a term for individuals who were neither men nor women.10 Colonial efforts disregarded these worldviews, imposing gendered power dynamics and compelling Native peoples to conform to a Christian, patriarchal family model, or else be deprived of their human rights.10 The enforcement of a gender binary has had serious consequences for Two Spirit health: Two Spirit indigenous people are today more likely to be sexually or physically attacked than both heterosexual indigenous women and white lesbian women. Transgender indigenous women are especially disproportionately attacked. Yet public discourse almost entirely fails to acknowledge these injustices, as well as the inadequacy of services to help indigenous transgender and Two Spirit people who have suffered attacks.10

“Clipped Wings” by Mallory Isburg (Lakota) on the left evokes the lives cut short by violence against indigenous women. Source: Andrea Wiglesworth.

Native survivors of violence suffer particular legal disadvantages in prosecuting their attackers. Federal laws set the maximum sentence in a tribal court to one year.5 In addition, tribes often do not have the authority to prosecute crimes committed on tribal land, because sexual violence falls under the Major Crimes Act, which lies under federal, not tribal, jurisdiction.5 This is particularly pernicious because federal attorneys decline to prosecute in 75% of the cases brought to them that involve crimes on tribal land.5 Without real legal authority, tribes are often unable to act aggressively, or even adequately, to punish violence against Native women. Therefore protection of Native women from physical and sexual assault is inseparable from the protection of tribal sovereignty.

But simply increasing the amount of federal policing on reservations is not the answer. Already, Native American men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men, and Native American women are incarcerated at six times the rate of white women.5 Native Americans are more likely than any other racial group to be killed by the police.5 In order to preempt this, some tribes have launched “community restorative justice projects,” aiming to keep the punishment of Native offenders within the tribe.5 These programs, however, may pressure victims to simply reconcile with their attackers in order to preserve their own place within the community. Activists are currently at work to create systems that hold perpetrators properly accountable without promoting mass incarceration.

Grassroots efforts that demand acknowledgement of missing and murdered Native women (such as the artwork featured in the article) have succeeded in opening discussion on the topic at the national, state, provincial, and tribal levels. Some states have begun to release reports on the topic, and to fund interventions.6 Several of these focus on the need for improved data collection, noting that violence against indigenous women is seriously underreported because many victims have little faith that their attackers will be prosecuted.6 People are also pushing for better services towards preventing violence against Natives and helping Native survivors.

Ending violence against indigenous women requires more than just training staff at traditional domestic violence shelters on cultural competency training. There are some organizations that are now tirelessly working to remedy the current situation, such as the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) that helps Native communities fraught with intergenerational trauma.11 Another good example is the indigenous-led organization National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), which promotes policies that protect both tribal sovereignty and women’s health; another one is the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC) which puts these sorts of policies into practice. The NAWHERC promotes traditional women center projects such as birth control, domestic violence and sexual assault initiatives. However, their agenda also includes affordable healthcare, nutritional security, the right of Native nations to determine tribal membership, the rights of Two Spirit people, and an end to coerced sterilization. NAWHERC understands that violence against Native women requires a combination of improved social services, housing, healthcare, economic development and respect for tribal sovereignty. The indigenous women who run NAWHERC express their demands simply as “the right to live as Native women.”

Note: Thank you to Katie McCleary and Down Magazine for giving me permission to use these images.

Emma Phelps is a sophomore in Grace Hopper College majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Ethinicity, Race, and Migration.She can be contacted at



  1. Remembrance: Honoring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. (2017). Yale Sisters of All Nations.
  2. National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Government of Canada. Retrieved from
  3. Rosay, B. André. Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men. National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from
  4. Breaking the Silence – Public Health’s Role in Intimate Partner Violence Prevention (2012). Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
  5. Smith, Andrea (2005). Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge: South End Press.
  6. The Facts on Violence Against American Indian/Alaska Native Women (2010). Futures Without Violence. Retrieved from
  7. Deer, S. (2015). The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  8. Bubar, Roe. (2013). Decolonizing Sexual Violence: Professional Indigenous Women Shape the Research. International Review of Qualitative Research.
  9. Bombay, A., Matheson, K., Anisman, H. (2013). The intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the concept of historical trauma. Transcultural Psychiatry. Retrieved from
  10. Hunt, S. (2016). An Introduction to the Health of Two Spirit People: Historical, Contemporary and Emergent Issues. National Collaborating Center for Aboriginal Health.
  11. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Retrieved from
  12. The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center. Retrieved from

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