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How can Michigan's Native communities address sexual assault and domestic violence?

Mar 24, 2016

The Next Idea

How does a community address domestic violence and sexual assault when calling the police is not often an option?

This is the question facing Native communities in Michigan, according to Lori Jump and Rachel Carr of the advocacy group Uniting Three Fires Against Violence.

Uniting Three Fires Against Violence advocacy organization logo.
Credit Uniting Three Fires Against Violence

Rates of domestic violence and sexual assault are extremely high for Native American women. Sixty-four percent will experience some sort of domestic violence, while as many as 1 in 3 will suffer a sexual assault. These problems are only exacerbated by the fact that it's extremely difficult to use the legal system to hold perpetrators accountable. 

Jump, the group's Executive Director, and Carr, a policy specialist, explain that a series of Supreme Court rulings have created a complex system of limited legal jurisdiction for tribal nations.

In many cases, Native courts cannot prosecute non-Natives for crimes on Native land.

In domestic violence and sexual assault cases, tribal courts can prosecute non-Natives only if the court can prove that a perpetrator had a connection to the tribe as a family member, works on the land, or has some other direct link.

If a non-Native person just walks onto Native land and commits an act of sexual assault, however, tribal courts have very few options. In too many cases, that perpetrator is not held accountable. 

At the same time, Native people are already over-represented in the criminal justice system. The relationship between policing, law, and Native communities has long been strained. 

So when an act of domestic violence or sexual assault occurs, explains Jump, too many victims wonder "What's the point of calling the police? Nothing is going to happen." 

So what’s The Next Idea?

Uniting Three Fires Against Violence addresses these difficult problems by coordinating education and advocacy across 12 different tribal nations in Michigan.

There is no typical day at the organization. Some days staff members might be speaking at educational meetings for tribal leaders, or they might be coordinating resources to help professional assault survivor advocates stay on top of changes to domestic violence law. Other days, they could be connecting Native victims to community members who can perform healing ceremonies. 

Since every tribe has their own unique legal system, working across those different court contexts can be difficult, said Carr.

Tribes that have been federally recognized for a longer period of time might have lots of advocacy and protection in place, whereas tribes that have recently gained federal status might have almost no policy infrastructure for dealing with these types of violence.

In those "younger" tribes, Uniting Three Fires might start trainings explaining "what is domestic violence?," or "why is sexual assault a problem in our community?" For more established tribes, the work involves updating legal codes to come into concert with new federal guidelines. 

Through all of this, Uniting Three Fires uses "culturally appropriate" approaches to solving domestic violence and sexual assault in Native nations. This means having an awareness of Native history and legal frameworks, and understanding why people might be reluctant to work with U.S. government systems.

It also means helping Native victims access culturally-specific spiritual practices and support systems.

Jump knows first-hand how important it is to take this approach. In Native communities that have had such difficult relationships with law enforcement, she says, "it's hard to think that there's someone there to help you."

But, "at the end of the day," according to Jump, "it's about providing justice." 

Lori Jump is the Executive Director of Uniting Three Fires Against Violence. Rachel Carr is the organization's Policy Specialist. 

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