If we have a decent grasp of U.S. history and even a modicum of social awareness, we know that colonization has made life difficult for Native Americans since America’s founding. But a new report shows that the reality may be worse than many imagine—especially for indigenous women living in urban areas.
In 2010, the Urban Indian Health Institute surveyed 148 Native women in the Seattle area, and the statistics they gathered are harrowing. The recently released report indicates that a full 94% of the women surveyed had been raped or coerced into having sex, though only 20% of them had reported the assaults to the police. Over half of the women had experienced some form of homelessness. And 86% of the respondents cited historical trauma as impacting their lives.
Let’s unpack that last statistic in order to put the rest in context.
Historical trauma is a complex, nuanced reality that people from oppressed populations experience—and a vital concept for people who are not from historically oppressed communities to understand. When an entire race or ethnic group has historically been subjected to genocide, enslavement, forced separations, and purposeful destruction of culture, the cumulative effect of that trauma spans generations.
In other words, it’s not just the people who directly suffer from systematic atrocities who are affected; their descendants experience direct and indirect emotional, psychological, social, communal, and financial effects from it.
What does that look like? Here’s one example:
A young Native American boy is forcibly taken from his family and community and sent to attend a Christian boarding school. He is given a new name, not allowed to speak his native language, and forbidden from partaking in his religious traditions. He is beaten if he resists. He’s beaten less if he doesn’t.
As he grows up and enters society, the racist community that forced his family separation in the first place rejects him because of his ethnicity. While the Native community welcomes him home, he doesn’t speak the language or understand the customs. He doesn’t know his own family. He doesn’t belong anywhere.
He finds a wife and has a couple of kids. But the years of abuse and rejection spill into his relationships. There are no counseling options available to him. He starts drinking to numb his pain, which only serves to unleash the anger he’s suppressed since his childhood. He starts abusing his wife and children.
His wife eventually has enough and leaves him. She struggles to make ends meet on her own.
Now her kids have not only been abused, but they are living in poverty without a father figure—struggles they will have to overcome in addition to the ongoing prejudice they face because of their ethnicity. Though different from the ones their father experienced, their traumas are a direct result of his oppression, which was just one piece of the systematic oppression of Native Americans.
And it doesn’t end there. The mother meets a man who sexually assaults her. She doesn’t report it for three reasons: (1) As with many abuse victims, her feelings of shame prevent her from telling authorities. (2) She doesn’t trust law enforcement—after all, these are the same government agencies that had enforced her ex-husband’s childhood separation. And (3) She doubts it would do any good. As the UIHI report states, only 8% of cases of a rape or coercion victim’s first attack ends in conviction for the perpetrator.
All of these issues can be traced back to the historical trauma caused by the U.S. forcing Native children into boarding schools and a lack of accountability for inflicting trauma. Now pile on the effects of atrocities like the Trail of Tears, the Wounded Knee Massacre, and more.
Oppression works by disrupting the healthy development of individuals, families, and communities, and those disruptions affect generations down the line. Eventually, those effects unjustly become identifying characteristics of the historically oppressed population. Meanwhile, the descendants of the oppressors—who have no direct experience with historical trauma and who may continue to perpetuate subtler forms of oppression themselves—scratch their heads as to why these populations can’t seem to rise above their circumstances.
Jessica Gourneau, Ph.D. said, “The sign of ultimate oppression working is when the oppressor can take away his hands, stand back and say, ‘Look at what they’re doing to themselves.’” We see this when non-Native Americans point judgmental fingers at issues Native communities struggle with, ignoring the role that historical trauma—as well as their own silent complicity—play in perpetuating them.
But that’s just one piece of the picture. In addition to historical trauma, the Urban Indian Health Institute report highlights ongoing injustices Native women face today. Native women and girls go missing at rates far higher than the rest of the population, with disappearances barely making a blip on the media’s radar. Native women are more than twice as likely to experience sexual violence and, on some reservations, women are murdered at rates more than ten times the national average. The numbers we do have are abysmal, but more research is needed to fully understand and address these epidemics.
“The serious lack of data and understanding about the violence perpetrated against urban American Indian and Alaska Native women is unacceptable and adds to the trauma Native people have experienced for generations,” UIHI’s report concludes. “But the resilience of Native women has sustained our communities for generation after generation. Bringing to light the stories of these women is an integral part of moving toward meaningful change that ends this epidemic of sexual violence.”
Native women are asking people to raise awareness by sharing the UIHI report and talking about these issues in our communities. And if we want to put our resources toward helping, consider donating to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which provides a hotline for Native women to report violence and get help, among other services.
Native women have suffered too much already. The least we can do is raise our voices and let them know we hear them.