SIOUX CITY, IOWA — Faith Spotted Eagle recalls, as if it were yesterday, the time she and three friends were viciously beaten by five white men.
It was 1974, months after an armed occupation by members of the Oglala Nation in the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. That standoff between indigenous protesters and federal law enforcement resulted in the deaths of two Native Americans.
It also riled up white sentiment against indigenous people.
The protest, which lasted 71 days, aimed to call attention to onerous federal policies toward Native Americans, to point the finger at a local white South Dakota leader accused of abusing his power.
At the time of the attack on her and her friends 45 years ago, Spotted Eagle was a young woman studying at the University of South Dakota and walking along the streets of Vermillion, South Dakota.
But the Native women’s very presence was all the provocation needed for their aggressors, who bellowed racist slurs, taunting them as “squaws” and “prairie niggers,” as they drove by in their car.
Then the men got out of the vehicle and, again unprovoked, started beating them. One picked up Spotted Eagle and threw her against a parked car. After she slid off the hood, he started to kick her, shattering one of her legs. Bystanders did nothing to help.
Faith Spotted Eagle. CREDIT: Danielle McLean
The attack was unthinkable in its brutality and yet reflects everyday reality for Native women, who are victims of physical violence with shocking regularity.
Indigenous women for generations have confronted an epidemic of murder, kidnappings, and rape. They disappear into the sex-slavery trade — or simply disappear altogether. And as Faith Spotted Eagle discovered years ago, they can sometimes become the victims of a brutal, racist beatdown.
“We were told to be careful, and that was an instance where we thought we were more safe on the city street and we weren’t,” Spotted Eagle, who at 70 is white-haired and wizened, told ThinkProgress.
“When my leg was broken, I was targeted. On the street, they didn’t beat up any white people. They beat us up.”
With a population of under 7 million, the American Indian population is relatively small. But in 2016 alone, there were 5,712 reports of missing or murdered Native women and girls across the country, according to research by the Urban Indian Health Institute.
Another grim study, from the National Institute of Justice, found in 2016 that four in five, or 1.5 million American Indian or Alaska Native women, experience violence in their lifetimes. Over half of Native women have been victims of sexual violence.
While that violence in many cases is committed by an intimate partner, Native Americans are more likely than people of other races to experience violence committed by someone of a different race, a 1999 Justice Department report found. About nine in 10 Native American rape or sexual-assault victims had assailants who were white or black, the report said.
Although the number of Native Americans murdered or missing in 2016 exceeded 3,000 — roughly the number of people who died during the September 11, 2001, terror attack — the Justice Department’s missing persons database logged only 116 cases that year.
The sheer scale of the violence against Native women and the abysmal failure by the government to adequately address it, explains why the issue was given such prominence during this week’s presidential candidates’ forum in Sioux City — the first to focus entirely on Native American issues.
Many of the indigenous women in attendance said that even more important than candidates offering solutions was that they were there at all, helping thrust Native issues into the national spotlight.
The community has, in fact, come to be more than a little skeptical of politicians’ promises. In the past, task forces have studied violence against Native women, but members of the indigenous community say it’s not been nearly enough. Legislation has simply scratched the surface; assurances from elected leaders that the issue will be addressed have seldom been kept.
“Every time a new president comes in, they come up with a so-called answer to the Indian problem,” said Spotted Eagle, who is the founder of a Native advocacy group, the Brave Heart Society.
The Global Indigenous Council’s “Invisible No More” billboard. CREDIT: Alter-Native Media/GIC
It’s not as if the abuse of Native women is a new issue.
White colonizers have been raping and brutalizing Native women since Europeans arrived in the Americas hundreds of years ago. Spotted Eagle said members of her Yankton Sioux tribe living in South Dakota have been abused by white colonizers since the U.S. military outpost Fort Randall was created in 1856.
Native women make easy targets. Indian reservations are located for the most part in remote, desolate regions of the country, out of sight and out of mind for most Americans. Current laws give understaffed and under-resourced tribal police little power to investigate and prosecute non-tribal members who commit such crimes, said Tom Rodgers, acting president of the Global Indigenous Council.
“If I’m a successful perpetrator, I’m going to go to places where I know the chances of being caught are slim,” Rodgers said. “They work hard, they drink hard, they see a population of people and women that are vulnerable, that are isolated, you see that interaction.”
Federal and state law-enforcement agencies also struggle to solve such crimes because they have little presence — or sometimes none at all — in remote reservations. Some carry a bias against Native people, tribal leaders say.
The situation has worsened in some areas, including in North Dakota, as a result of an oil boom of recent years. Crews working on pipeline projects live in temporary facilities known as “man camps” that are located near a number of Native reservations in the region.
News reports say men affiliated with the camps are sometimes suspected of preying on Native women. In recent years, reports have surged of violent crimes committed against women and girls from three affiliated tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara in the region.
Media coverage — and the lack of it — has also been part of the problem. When an affluent, white woman goes missing, there are often nationwide manhunts, alerts, and round-the-clock news coverage. But when a Native woman goes missing, news coverage can be minimal to nonexistent.
News organizations have historically given a disproportionate amount of coverage to white victims for a number of reasons: lack of newsroom diversity, storylines they believe will generate ratings, and a certain level of “pure discrimination,” Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, told ThinkProgress.
“For indigenous women, there’s also the factor of geography: News outlets are nearly all located in urban areas, most of them very far away from reservations,” said Benton.
The community is taking matters into its own hands as it tries to draw attention to the problem of violence against Native women.
The Native rights organization Global Indigenous Council, along with other regional tribal leadership groups, recently placed billboards along highways in states where Native women often go missing, including in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma.
The billboards, which say, “Invisible No More,” show the face of a Native woman with a giant red hand painted over her mouth.
Many of the candidates attending this week’s forum pledged to support a number of bills that have been introduced in Congress to address aspects of the issue in recent years.
The plans of two candidates in particular seemed to garner support at the forum: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro both proposed additional funding to support victims of assault and abuse. Warren also pledged to fully fund under-resourced public safety and criminal justice efforts in Native communities.
There also have been some efforts on Capitol Hill to address the problem. Among the legislation that appears to have the best prospects of getting passed is a bill with bipartisan support in the House and the Senate that would improve federal data collection on violent crimes committed against indigenous people and provide new training guidelines for how federal agencies respond to such cases.
Another bill, the Not Invisible Act, would create an advisory committee that would make recommendations on how the Justice and Interior Departments can best use their resources to address violence against indigenous women.
And the Reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which already has passed in the House, would allow tribal law-enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes of sexual violence, sex trafficking, stalking, child abuse, and violence against tribal members on their land.
However, it is unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will allow any of those measures to come to the floor. And some tribal members say the bills only scratch the surface when it comes to solving the problem of violence against women.
What would help, Rodgers said, is if state, federal, local, and tribal law-enforcement agencies stop working in “silos” and communicate with each other better.
There’s also a need for better training to improve cooperation among agencies. Federal agents should be required to take anti-bias training before being assigned cases on reservations, he said.
The Global Indigenous Council, with the backing of 50 Indian tribes, proposed various amendments to a congressional bill that would create an interagency law-enforcement body within each U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs region to help coordinate efforts among federal, state, and tribal agencies.
The council has a raft of other proposals, including creating tribal liaison offices to help indigenous victims to get support and share information about cases. Another would allow police to monitor and clamp down on man camps.
But in the end, no legislation will work if it doesn’t include additional federal funding that would give tribal and federal law-enforcement officers the resources they need to investigate and prosecute cases, Rodgers said.
“We have an extremely vulnerable population with little to no resources across the board,” he said.
“We don’t need legislation that is not being funded. You can take your platitudes and your nice commissions and everything. We know what the problem is: Enough funding.”