All posts by abkohn

Sexual Violence Against American Indian Women

The exploitation of Sarah Baartman was (at least to us now) clearly and explicitly a result of colonial, white supremacist structures in South Africa and Europe and their sexual implications at the time. I think it is important as well to consider how cases of sexual violence that are closer to home – that is, recent and in the United States – are also reflections of colonial and racial violence.

Rates of sexual violence against Native women are enormous. A study of 2000 women found 56 percent had experienced sexual violence. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than other ethnic groups (Gilpin 2016). They are also more vulnerable to organized sexual violence: a 2007 study in

Northern Minnesota found that 24% of women charged with prostitution were Native, despite representing less than 3% of the population in the area (Sullivan 2016). Native women and girls are often trafficked to areas with high concentrations of men, such as Duluth’s international sea port and rural South Dakota for pheasant season (Sullivan 2016, Hilleary 2015).

Billboard advertising Cherokee initiative against domestic violence

Law enforcement provides little help to sexually victimized Native women and – like in Baartman’s case – may blame them for their own trafficking or assault. Edith Chavez was abducted and drugged for several days until she managed to escape. Police did not take her statement, but rather arrested her for an unpaid ticket and “issued a press release in June claiming Chavez had smelled of alcohol and had been to a casino” (Sullivan 2016).

Sign at a shelter in the rural village of Emmonak, Alaska

Blame for sexual violence among Native women must go beyond individual attackers, and take a historical, colonial, and racial perspective, especially since close to 90% of rapes reported on reservations are committed by non-Indian men (Waghorn 2015). Sexual violence is an inextricable aspect of colonialism, and the historical treatment of Native populations in America can be directly linked to the assaults so many women now face. Lisa Heth, who runs a shelter on the Crow Creek reservation, notes that girls may be vulnerable to trafficking when they come from families involved in alcohol and drugs, but it is important to understand that these kind of dependancies can be understood as a kind of violation themselves (Hilleary 2015). Says one woman living on a reservation, “we’ve already been [violated] in so many ways, from historical trauma, to the addiction, to the sexual abuse that we don’t talk about as communities, to the things that have happened at the boarding schools and the breakdown of our communities and our families” (Sullivan 2016). As one reporter points out, “it is impossible to discuss the trafficking of Native youth outside of the context of history, especially the so-called ‘boarding school’ and ‘relocation’ eras” (Hilleary 2015). Displacement, separation from families, and sexual violation are integral parts of colonialist violence that have relevance to Baartman’s life, early histories of American settlers, and the violence that pervades on reservations today.


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White v. University of California

In 1976, two 9,000 year old skeletons were unearthed during an excavation at the University of California, San Diego. The Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, which represents 12 different tribes in California, filed suit for the repatriation of the skeletons in 2006, to which the University agreed. However, three scientists interested in studying the remains sued the University to block their return. A district court dismissed their claim, finding that the tribes were a necessary part of the suit but were protected by sovereign immunity, a decision upheld in the 9th circuit court of appeals. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2016, ending the dispute in the University and Kumeyaay’s favor (Zimmer 2016, San Diego Union-Tribune 2012).

Professor Gail Kennedy, who led the excavation that originally unearthed the remains

While the case’s outcome is positive from a repatriation perspective, its coverage across various news sources reveals powerful opposing viewpoints and often highly biased or dismissive attitudes towards repatriation claims. In 2014, the Indian Country Media Network announced a “court victory” for Kumeyaay tribes but warned that “the battle may be far from over as the plaintiffs plan to appeal.” However, more mainstream news sources took decidedly different tones. The New York Times titled an article covering the cases conclusion, “Tribes’ Win in Fight for La Jolla Bones Clouds Hopes for DNA Studies,” while an earlier headline associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science reads, “Ancient American Skeletons Safe From Reburial, But Only for the Moment” (Zimmer 2016, Gibbons 2012). The same article refers to repatriation as “handing over 9000-year-old human bones to Native Americans” (Gibbons 2012). This kind of coverage reflects the opinions of the plaintiffs, who felt that repatriating the remains would constitute “a tremendous loss for science” (Zimmer 2016). More extremely, researcher Eske Willerslev argued that, “to give them away without study, would be like throwing the genetic crown jewels of the peopling of the Americas in the ocean” (Dalton 2011). These dismissive and frankly racist attitudes, which essential equate repatriation with waste and ignore the wishes and abilities of the Kumeyaay tribes, are made distinctly apparent by White v. University of California despite its outcome.

The age of the remains also lends particular importance to the case, in both its implications for the scientific community and how it highlights the disconnect between American Indian concepts of relationships with history and our own (“Western”) ideas. In other words, non-Native researchers might not be able to conceptualize the significance of such distant ancestors to the tribes that sought to reclaim them. This is especially relevant given that the age of the remains was concretely relevant to the case, as it was used to argue that the University could not show they belonged to any of the tribes involved. Says a representative for the plaintiffs, “We’re talking about remains that are old beyond belief. There’s no way that you can connect those remains to any present day Indian tribe” (San Diego Union-Tribune 2012). More than anything, this case brings to light the fierceness with which repatriation claims are still debated, and the troubling attitudes that may surround them.

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