Sohng and Kwon Discuss Violence Against Women in Native American Communities

Once leaders of their matriarchal societies, Native American women are now twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than Caucasian women, said Celine Kwon ’13 and Elaine Sohng ’13 in a presentation of their independent project “Sexual Violence Among Native American Communities and the Violence Against Women Act,” this Tuesday. Kwon and Sohng focused on the origins of sexual violence in the Native American population and the efficacy of the recently updated Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a federal law passed in 1994 which provides funding for the investigation and prosecution of violence towards women. “Between 85 and 95 percent of violent crimes committed against Native American women are committed by non-Indians, and over half of the reported perpetrators of these crimes were white,” said Kwon. As Native American reservations operate under a tribal court system, where state laws do not apply, most crimes against native women go unprosecuted, Sohng said. The revised version of VAWA, which was passed through Congress this February, will expand the jurisdiction of tribal courts to non-natives and provide $659 billion per year in funding for investigation and prosecution of sex crimes in Native American communities, Kwon said. While violence against women is prevalent in Native American societies today, it was previously highly stigmatized within tribes. “In a lot of the traditional communities, especially the Midwestern ones, if a man beat his partner, the entire community would beat him with sticks and banish him for life,” said Sohng. This stigma is no longer applicable since the majority of perpetrators of abuse are not Native Americans and come from outside the community. The origins of violence within Native American communities date to the emergence of boarding schools in the 1860s. “The boarding schools… destroyed traditional family structures, especially with abusive boarding school owners, who would physically and sexually abuse children,” said Sohng . The federal government, through the Indian Health Service, also forced the sterilization of over 25 percent of Native American women in 1970, lowering the self-esteem and perceived impowrtance of Native American women, according to Sohng. The federal establishment of tribal leadership within reservations and tribes also forced European gender norms on the Native American population, pushing women out of the tribal political process in which they originally held much control, Sohng continued. “Originally, Native American women had autonomy in relationships, sexual freedom and the right to divorce, but those were effectively destroyed when they married Euro-American men,” said Sohng. Tracy Ainsworth, Instructor in History and Social Sciences, Ryan Wheeler, Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology, and Lindsay Randall, Peabody Museum Educator, served as advisors for the project.