Fighting back against sexual harassment in Indian CountryWomen leaders and advocates speak out with #MeToo and #NotInvisible
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk Brenda Hill was in her early thirties at the time, raising a child on her own. She had applied for a teaching position at a tribal college and went to the interview with high hopes. Everything seemed to be going great, and she thought she had a good chance at getting the job. Then she asked the older, married man who had interviewed her whether the position included benefits. The man, who had his back turned to Hill, swung his chair around and asked suggestively: “What do you have in mind?” She reported the man to the college department administrator who had recommended her for the job, but nothing ever happened to the offender. She withdrew her application for the job. “At that time, I simply knew that the behavior was inappropriate and made me feel dirty, but was unaware of any recourse,” said Hill, who is now 61. “Though I needed a job, and most likely would have gotten it, I was not willing to pay the price.”
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As he resigned on December 7, Franken noted the irony of leaving his seat even as President Donald Trump – who was caught on tape boasting that he could sexually assault women without retribution – remained in office. Deb Haaland, a Democratic candidate for Congress in New Mexico and Laguna Pueblo citizen, said the national movement to fight sexual harassment has opened a window of opportunity for victims in Indian Country who have kept quiet about their experiences. “I think that if women have experienced it there’s no better time for them to express that than now,” she said. Advocates for Indian women certainly haven’t remained silent during the national movement to end sexual harassment, and even launched the hashtag #NotInvisible to highlight the plight of the 84 percent of Native American women who say they have faced violence in their lives, as well as the thousands of Native women reported missing each year. The #MeToo movement has had other unintended but beneficial consequences for Indian Country as well. When news broke of Weinstein’s transgressions, political leaders across the country responded to pressure to give up campaign funding they had received from the wealthy political donor. Among them was Franken, who decided to give political funding he had received from Weinstein to the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. The resource center provides support to Indian women and their families, including child advocacy, legal services, affordable housing, chemical dependency programs and mental health care. Nicole Matthews, a board member for the resource center who has worked with Franken, said the resource center has received some funds from Franken. “I think it’s done some real help for the community,” she said. Of Franken, she said: “I believe people need to be held accountable for their actions.”
Matthews, who is a citizen of the White Earth Nation, also serves as executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, which works to prevent sexual violence against Indian women and children. She said the coalition relies on the traditional teachings of tribes to help combat sexual violence and harassment and will host a conference April 4-6, 2018, focused on ending gender-based violence. She said the conference will include presentations about violence against Native American men. “Our men are also victims of sexual violence,” she said. She said the national movement to end sexual harassment has given renewed strength to organizations like the coalition. “More so than ever, everybody is talking about it,” she said. “It’s a great time to further that dialogue.” For herself, Matthews said she has experienced sexual harassment her entire life, including having her skirt pulled off as a child on the playground and having hockey sticks pushed between her legs. She said she’s also been called degrading names while walking on sidewalks and been forced to endure unwanted advances. As a young woman, she said, her employer once told her: “Maybe that’s what I need … a young girl like you.” She said she’s experienced other, more subtle acts of harassment, too, including being told to smile when she didn’t look friendly enough and having a college math professor stare at her breasts as she asked him for help with her homework. “Unfortunately, I have many stories of sexual harassment,” she said. She said ending sexual harassment in the workplace can start by increasing the number of Native American women in leadership roles within tribal organizations. However, she said, victims of sexual harassment also need to decide for themselves whether it’s safe for them to point out their transgressors. “I certainly respect when people don’t or aren’t able to talk about it,” she said.
Matthews’ organization isn’t the only Native American women’s advocacy group that will benefit from the Weinstein scandal. In August, Weinstein’s company released the film Wind River, whose plot revolves around missing and murdered indigenous women and the difficulties faced in prosecuting crimes in Indian Country. When sexual misconduct allegations began mounting against Weinstein, the irony of a movie mogul accused of sexual violence releasing a film meant to fight that very thing was too much for the film’s writer and director, Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan managed to convince Weinstein’s company to extricate itself from the film and divert any profits it would have received from the critically acclaimed movie to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. Lucy Simpson, executive director of the NIWRC, said she doesn’t expect to see any of those royalties for another six months to a year, but she’s honored that her organization was chosen to receive those funds. “We recognize the deep responsibility this carries, and we are looking at options for both how these monies can improve and strengthen our work, but also benefit the larger movement to end violence against Native women and girls,” she said. The organization seeks to end gender-based violence in Native American communities through educational programs, direct assistance and development of local and national policy focused on improving indigenous communities and strengthening tribal sovereignty. Simpson said sexual harassment doesn’t just occur in the workplace, like many believe. “The mentality of ownership over Native women’s bodies does not occur only from 9-5,” she said. “It is a dynamic that has grown in mainstream society since colonization. We see it almost every day with the sexualization of Native women in media.”
She cited the recent sexualization of Pocahontas by Nicki Minaj and Victoria's Secret models wearing Native headdresses as examples. It is important for tribes to create and enforce their own laws regarding sexual violence and harassment, said Simpson, who is a citizen of the Navajo Nation. “Tribal courts tend to have a better understanding of what an indigenous victim of sexual harassment (and other forms of violence) is experiencing as an indigenous person, given the fact that for many of us, our Native identify is at the core of our life experiences,” she said. Simpson said the lack of female representation within tribal leadership fuels the problem of sexual harassment, though she credits colonization of Indian nations as the primary cause of violence against Native American women. Colonizers, she said, understood the vital role Native American women played in tribal societies and targeted them physically and attacked their social status in an attempt to erode tribal values. “Because women form the backbone of Native communities, by attacking women, they could crack the foundation of Indian nations,” Simpson said. “The important role that Native women held in our traditional societies was looked down on by colonizing forces, and to some degree, our peoples started to internalize that devaluing of Native women and their role.” The fight against sexual violence will require tribes to reclaim their traditional values, including the sacred role of women in their societies, she said. Combating sexual violence in Indian Country also will require strengthening tribal laws related to sexual violence, she said. Often, she said, those laws are simply cut and pasted from state and federal statutes and fail to recognize the unique needs of indigenous people. “In contrast, if tribes were to develop and implement these policies in a way that was grounded in their creation stories and tribal traditions, I think it would make more sense to tribal employees, and we would see a marked change in attitudes,” she said.
Started the #NotInvisible campaign to bring attention to the epidemic of murdered and missing Native American women. And my bill, Savanna's Act, is a needed step to help address this crisis. Join me in urging action to stand up for Native women. pic.twitter.com/UrlPYuh30a— Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (@SenatorHeitkamp) December 6, 2017
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Even before Weistein’s transgressions were publicized, a Navajo Nation leader called out a colleague for sexual harassment and began a campaign to eradicate sexual harassment within her tribe’s halls of power. Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said she’s had a very positive response since she told her fellow delegates during a council meeting in July that a fellow delegate had directed vulgar comments and sexual innuendo at her. Nearly 500 people – mostly tribal government employees – have contacted her since then saying they also encountered sexual harassment, she said. A public dialogue has begun on her reservation, but she’s also experienced backlash, primarily by way of other council members who have stalled her legislation, she said. “It’s created at least a safe space for individuals to start talking about it,” she said. Initially, Crotty – the only woman on the 24-member council – was criticized by her fellow delegates, along with their wives, after making her allegations. But even before she made her disclosure, the tribal council had begun efforts to combat sexual harassment and assault, creating the Sexual Assault Prevention Subcommittee in May 2016. The council established the committee, which Crotty chairs, following the death of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike, who had been sexually assaulted and murdered just days before. Since Crotty’s disclosure, the tribe has begun providing sexual harassment training to its employees. The tribe recently fired a police official because of sexual harassment complaints, Crotty said. Some Navajo communities have begun requiring criminal background checks of those seeking public office, she added. “We’re on the right path, but there’s still more to be done,” Crotty said. She said she still struggles to get bills she sponsors to get forwarded out of the committees where they originate. Most legislation proposed at least makes it that far, she said. And despite the flurry of allegations and disclosures regarding sexual harassment within the Navajo Nation government, no probes of the accused have occurred, Crotty said. But she doesn’t plan to let that slow her efforts to strengthen tribal laws and policies regarding sexual harassment. “We’re going to continue with that dialogue,” she said.
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Deleana OtherBull, executive director of the New Mexico-based Coalition to STOP Volence Against Native Women (CSVANW), said she is doing research on lateral violence, or violence that occurs within marginalized groups where members assault each other as a result of being oppressed. She said one of the greatest obstacles to fighting sexual harassment within tribal organizations is the very sovereignty that is so vital to empowering tribes. Because tribal laws regarding workplace harassment don’t fall under state or federal jurisdiction, tribes must determine those laws for themselves and then must enforce those laws, she said. OtherBull, who has examined tribal laws regarding workplace harassment, said most tribes lack sexual harassment laws and those that do have them rarely enforce them. However, many tribes do have internal workplace policies, but those aren’t enforceable by tribal courts, she said. A few tribes, like the Navajo Nation, have stronger sexual harassment laws, but those laws don’t establish penalties for violations. And while tribal judges still can determine penalties for violations, their decisions often aren’t enforceable because tribes often lack jails and programs needed to rehabilitate offenders, such as anger management services, OtherBull said. CSVANW advocates for stronger tribal laws related to sexual harassment, including confidentiality clauses, she said. She said confidentiality provisions give victims the courage to speak out about harassment. She said she doesn’t blame tribal councils for failing to pass laws designed to protect and empower victims of sexual harassment, considering all the work those councils must do in other areas. “They have all these priorities that they’re dealing with,” she said. “Sometimes (sexual harassment legislation) falls at the bottom of the list.” OtherBull, who is Crow and Northern Cheyenne, credited Crotty for starting the conversation within Indian Country about sexual harassment. “She really got the wheels rolling in the Navajo Nation when she talked about her experience.”
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The movement to eradicate sexual harassment isn’t confined only to tribal governments, however. Earlier this month, Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans to improve working conditions at the Department of the Interior following publication of a study that found a high rate of harassment at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A survey of BIA employees showed 40 percent had experienced some form of harassment – primarily racial and sexual – in their workplaces. That rate represented the highest of any agency within the Interior. More than 38 percent of employees in the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians said they had experienced harassment, while about 39 percent of employees at the National Park Service said they had. In terms of sexual harassment specifically, nearly 10 percent of BIA employees said they had been sexually harassed, compared to more than 11 percent of OST employees and more than 10 percent of NPS employees. Zinke gave those agencies 45 days to address workplace problems found by the employee survey. Those agencies have seen a flurry of accusations in recent months, including male employees at the Grand Canyon who have been fired following harassment accusations, and the resignation of a BIA employee in Arizona who had sent “sexually explicit” text and social media messages to citizens and employees of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Office of the Inspector General reported in October. A second BIA employee was accused of using his government computer to view pornographic websites while on the job, the Inspector General said in August. Brenda Hill, whose consulting firm Brenda Hill Consulting supports advocates of Native women, said sexual harassment in the workplace can be partly attributed to the historical trauma Native people have experienced. “We bring our trauma with us to the workplace as well,” she said.
Other efforts to combat sexual violence against Native American women are underway as well, including three bills aimed at directing more resources to victims of crime in Indian Country, ensuring tribes have access to federal criminal databases, requiring more data collection on Native human trafficking victims and initiating a national dialogue on missing and murdered Native women. One of the bills, known as Savanna’s Act, responds to growing concerns about the large numbers of missing and murdered Native women. Data is scarce, partly because the Department of Justice has never been required to track the data, but Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) – who introduced the bill – said more than 5,700 cases of missing Native women were reported in 2016 alone. "The actual number is likely much larger, due to chronic under-reporting,” she said during a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in October on the three bills. Recently, during the Lakota Nation Invitational sports, educational and cultural tournament in Rapid City, South Dakota, a coalition of Native women advocates hosted a workshop designed to educate teachers and school staff, as well as tribal employees, about sexual harassment. Hill, who helped organize the workshop, said many Native Americans have forgotten the matrilineal-based societies of their people, choosing instead to adopt the patriarchal society of American society, a society that until fairly recently viewed women and children as the property of men. “You have a few generations that were basically institutionalized and didn’t have the opportunity to learn their roles as part of an extended community,” she said. Hill, who hails from the Blackfeet Nation, said it will take time to repair the damage done by colonization and reeducate Native people about their traditional family values. “It’s about creating awareness about those kinds of things and reclaiming our view of the world and relationships with each other.”