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Sexual Violence in Indian Country

 In Abuse Types, Abusive Behaviors, Domestic Violence in Indian Country, Native centered advocacy, Services for Native Survivors, Sexual Assault, Uncategorized

*WARNING: This blog includes graphic content that some readers may find distressing.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. There is a broad spectrum of studies and statistics that attempt to explain why even today sexual assault continues to be a real threat to society, not just to women, but to all people. In looking at the issue, every gender, every race and at every age, the threat of sexual violence exists every minute of every day. 

How Does Federal Law Define Rape?

In 1927, the U.S. Department of Justice defined “forcible rape” as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” The definition didn’t include assaults against men, children or same-sex partners. This definition remained unchanged for 85 years. 

In 2012, the voices of survivors, advocates, and law enforcement personnel were heard by the then FBI Director Robert Mueller who took action to update the definition of rape. He recognized that any person, regardless of gender, age or sexual preference could be the victim of a sexual assault and that persons could be raped with objects. He also recognized that victims may be unable to give consent due to age, mental or physical incapacities and may even be temporarily incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.  

“Rape is the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

While changing the legal definition of rape does not change survivors’ traumatic experiences, it greatly impacts their experiences after the assault. In a court of law, it matters when the definition fits the crime and in order to prevent it, it matters when the punishment fits the crime. The new definition provides prosecutors with the tools they need to better serve victims and where justice can be sought by all victims of sexual assault. 

The definition provided is the federal definition of rape. It is important to note that each jurisdiction tribal and state will have their own definition which may vary significantly.   

Native Americans Disproportionately Affected

Around the world, Indigenous peoples have been and still are being victimized by predominant civilizations. Beginning with colonization, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives suffered at the hands of non-natives and rape was frequently used as a tool of colonization and oppression. The impacts of colonization, and specifically rape still impact Native communities to this day.

Nationwide, an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds and every nine minutes that victim is a child. Meanwhile, only five out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. That means 995 out of 1,000 perpetrators are free to assault again. For Native Americans, the picture is even bleaker. 

  • Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are twice as likely to experience a rape/sexual assault compared to all races.3
  • Every year an average of 5,900 American Indians ages 12 and older experience sexual assault.(3)
  • 41 percent of sexual assaults against American Indians are committed by a stranger; 34 percent by an acquaintance; and 25 percent by an intimate or family member. (3)
  • On average, there are 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.(4)
  • 21 percent of transgender, genderqueer, or nonconforming (TGQN) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18 percent of non-TGQN females, and 4 percent of non-TGQN males.(5)
  • Millions of men in the United States have been victims of rape. Statistically, one out of every ten rape victims are male.(6)

Beyond those statistics remain the innumerable victims who do not report or cannot report sexual assault for any variety of reasons. One of the more common reasons a victim may not report an assault is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. 

The Effects of Sexual Assault

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious psychological disease suffered by millions of people who have been exposed to extreme stress, violence or loss. PTSD can cause many trauma responses, from rendering a victim mute to living in a heightened state of panic. However, unless and until the survivor can speak about the assault, silence itself serves to protect the perpetrator. 

Possible Feelings and Reactions 

After a sexual assault has occurred, the victim can experience a multitude of debilitating emotions. Processing trauma is never easy, but putting labels on the emotions can help put things into perspective.  

  • Fear is the most common victim reaction. The victim will associate the assault with certain sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, places, etc. For weeks or months after the assault, fear and anxiety can be triggered by any number of reminders of the assault.
  • Guilty feelings may be the result of self-blame. Victims may think such things as “I shouldn’t have been out that late.” or “I should have dressed differently.” They may even feel guilty about what they had to do in order to survive (they didn’t scream, fight back or report the crime). It can also be a result of living in a society where victim-blaming is prevalent.
  • Shock occurs when the victim feels numb and disconnected. It occurs when the victim just can’t process what had happened to them. Victims who remain calm or can’t cry is an indication in of itself that they are experiencing an emotional shock.
  • Disrupted relationships often occur when the victim feels embarrassed or ashamed and becomes withdrawn and/or depressed. This could lead the victim to avoid people, places, and things that remind them of the trauma.
Understanding Consent

Consent is expressed when one person voluntarily agrees to the proposal of another. It is best to know that consent is legally required at every stage of sexual activity.

  • Consent is conditional and changeable. Consent must be mutual, free from coercion, and given in a clear state of mind. Consent must be ongoing and given at all stages of sexual activity. Consent can be withdrawn.
  • Age matters! By law, children or minors below a certain age, (the age of sexual consent in that jurisdiction) are not able to give valid consent to sexual acts. 
  • Likewise, mental capacity impairs the ability to give legal consent as in persons with Alzheimer’s disease(7) as well as those who are unconscious, intoxicated and/or drugged. 

Sexual assault is pervasive in every corner of the world. It is very important to remember that the perpetrator is at fault, not the victim. It will take time and effort for a victim of sexual assault to heal and to move forward, but it can be done. It must be done. There are so many people that not only need help but who want to help. For the victim, the helper and/or a concerned family or friend, help is available.


A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) is a nurse specifically trained to conduct a forensic exam to include evaluation and collection of evidence. They are sensitive to survivors of sexual assault and use their expertise to provide effective courtroom testimony. Before the exam, there are a few things the survivor should know.

  1. Before seeing a SANE nurse or having a rape kit done, the survivor should try to preserve any evidence carried by their body and avoid showering, brushing their teeth or going to the bathroom. In fact, the survivor should avoid changing their clothes or put the clothing in a paper bag and bring it with them to the exam.
  2. If drugs are suspected to have been used, the survivor can request a toxicology kit.
  3. A police report does not have to be filed to have a SANE exam or rape kit done. Evidence collected will only be analyzed if and when the victim decides to press charges.
  4. Victims can request an advocate from their local rape crisis center to be present during the exam.
  5. Minors or elders may be subject to mandatory reporting requirements.
StrongHearts Can Help 

Help is available for victims of sexual assault. StrongHearts Native Helpline advocates are trained to take a Native-centered, empowerment-based approach to every call and offer peer-to-peer support, crisis intervention, assistance with safety planning, referrals to local resources and education and information. Services are completely free, anonymous and confidential.

To explore your options for safety and healing, call StrongHearts Native Helpline at 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483) daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CST. Callers reaching out after hours may connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) by selecting option one.


Sexual assault service providers may also be accessed through the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. You can also reach RAINN by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) or visit their website at online at rainn.org

  1. An Updated Version of Definition of Rape, The U.S. Department of Justice Archives, Last Updated April 2017. https://www.justice.gov/archives/opa/blog/updated-definition-rape
  1. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) https://www.rainn.org/statistics Note: Per the RAINN website, the primary data source they use is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is an annual study conducted by the Justice Department
  1. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, American Indians and Crime, 1992-2002 (2004). 
  1. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2018 (2019)
  1. David Cantor, Bonnie Fisher, Susan Chibnall, Reanna Townsend, et. al. Association of American Universities (AAU), Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct (September 21, 2015)
  1. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010  (2013).
  1. Pam Belluck (April 22, 2015). “Iowa Man Found Not Guilty of Sexually Abusing Wife With Alzheimer’s”. The New York Times. Retrieved April 23, 2015.
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