CAMP 2015: Five lessons about covering sexual assault in Native communities

By Madi Alexander, 2015 JAWS Fellow

Panelists speak about reporting on the Native American community. (Photo by Beatriz Costa Lima)

The rape and brutalization of Native American women and girls is pervasive both on and off tribal lands. At a panel on sexual violence at JAWS CAMP, five journalists shared their experiences and advice on covering these issues and understanding the context around them. The speakers were:

  • Suzette Brewer, reporter at Indian Country Today
  • Mary Annette Pember, contributor at Indian Country Today
  • Lori Edmo-Suppah, editor at Sho-Ban News
  • Kathy Kiss, producer of Hidden Tears Project

Rita Henley Jensen, editor-in-chief of Women’s eNews, moderated the panel. These are the key conclusions discussed by the panel, followed by some resources for reporters:


1. Native women experience trafficking and abuse more than any other ethnic group.

“The sexual violence and brutalization of Native women is a story 500 years in the making,” Pember said. “Native women have the highest incidence of sexual violence, about one in three.”

But Brewer said that number is only what is identified. “Among the women we know, we don’t know one single women who hasn’t been sexually assaulted in her life,” she said. “It’s probably two in three, maybe even higher. Probably 2.3 or 2.5 out of three. It’s that high.”

Edmo-Suppah said her great-grandfather was conceived when his mother was raped in 1864 by a cavalryman. He was 6 years old when their family was forcibly removed.

“For my grandmother, his daughter, it was really hard for her to go back there because she said the Boise River ran red with the blood of our people,” Edmo-Suppah said.

2. Native women fear the repercussions of reporting sex crimes.

Kiss said women who report rape or domestic violence fear losing their children to foster care. Once Native children enter foster care, she said, parents rarely get them back.

Pember said women are also afraid to come forward because they might have warrants out for property and petty crimes.

“Hundreds of thousands of women and girls and boys stay silent because they’re trying to hang on to what little they have,” Pember said.

Brewer said one 15-year-old girl who was the victim of sex trafficking did not want to come forward because she feared losing her two children to foster care.

3. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has several shortcomings when it comes to Native women.

Reservations and tribal lands typically have their own jurisdictions, which means that local and state law enforcement agencies cannot intervene. That is problematic because so many non-Indians commit crimes against Indian people and tribes cannot adjudicate those cases.

“Two-thirds of the crimes committed against Natives are committed by other races on Indian people,” Brewer said. “They go there because they know they can get away with it.”

In 2012, tribes pushed for jurisdiction over non-Indian people who commit crimes on Native lands to be included in Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994. Currently VAWA grants that special jurisdiction only for domestic violence — not for rape, murder, assault, fraud or other crimes.

One exception is Public Law 280, is a federal law that allows some states to assume jurisdiction over reservations. But that law applies only to a few states.

In other states, federal authorities are responsible for adjudication. Brewer said jurisdictional difficulties are one of the main reasons perpetrators of crimes against Native women and children are rarely punished.

4. Don’t assume that Native women and children receive the same resources and treatment as others.

Kiss, who works in Canada, said that less than 10 percent of murders and disappearances of Native women in Canada are solved. There is little to no media or law enforcement attention on crimes committed against Native women and children, she said.

“There’s an assumption that the laws of the land are going to be lived or acted out the same way on reserves as off reserves,” she said. “That’s not how it is.”

Kiss said to follow the money. Even though funds may be allocated for Native women and children, the likelihood that they are actually receiving benefits from the government is low. The foster-care system does not treat Native children the same way as white children.

5. Non-Natives can successfully report on Native issues.

In an age where reporting is often expected to be done from a cubicle, reporting on Native issues cannot be handled that way if the reporter wants a good and complete story.

“You can’t just go in there and be demanding and expect answers,” Edmo-Suppah said. “You have to gain the people’s trust.”

To be effective, reporting on the Native community needs to be done in person. Relationships with sources must be built over time.

“Ask open-ended questions,” said Brewer, “Let them tell the story.”



Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Native American Health Policy

“The Round House” by Louise Erdrich

“The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America” by Sarah Deer