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‘We’re not done’: MacArthur Fellow Sarah Deer finds justice for Native American victims of violence

Sarah Deer (Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Even now, years after its release, the data and analysis outlined in an Amnesty International report can be difficult to absorb: More than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetime, and faults in the framework of the legal system make women on reservations especially vulnerable to violent offenders.

Sarah Deer, a law professor and recently named MacArthur Foundation fellow, saw the issue as an international human rights matter and framed it as such in 2007 when she co-authored “Maze of Injustice.” In the years since, the conversation surrounding the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault on reservations has shifted significantly, and the legal picture has, too, in part because of the report and because of Deer’s and others’ continued efforts.

The 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act and the reauthorization last year of the Violence Against Women Act have provisions to expand tribal courts’ powers to prosecute and sentence violent offenders on reservations; before, tribes had little to no authority over crimes committed by non-Native Americans on tribal land. Because states generally do not have jurisdiction on reservations, federal officials with offices that are often hours from a reservation might have sole oversight of a case.

Deer, who is 41 and teaches at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., was named last week as a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s $625,000 award known as the genius grant. The grant spotlights Deer’s work for Native women and comes as much of the national discussion is centered on domestic violence and how the NFL has handled the issue amid reports of abuse by players, including former Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice.

“Every time we break the silence about what is going on it’s beneficial,” Deer said in a phone interview. At the same time, it’s extremely disheartening that it takes a woman getting hurt before a broad discussion takes place, she said.

“You know it seems like every few years, a sports figure, a celebrity, commits an act of domestic violence or child abuse, and there’s a big discussion that happens, but then it goes away,” she said.

She’s hopeful that this time the dialogue continues. In the meantime, she said, she finds it promising to see an ongoing conversation in Native circles. “I’m really grateful to see a discussion on social media, and among a lot of Native men in particular who are talking about the topic of domestic violence and holding each other accountable.”

Read more from She the People’s interview with Deer about her career to date and where the ongoing work to address violence against Native American women is headed. Excerpts from the conversation have been edited.

She the People: You’re a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and attended the University of Kansas law school. What motivated you to direct your career specifically toward addressing violence against Native American women on reservations?

Sarah Deer: I think the real pivotal point for me came when I started as an undergrad at KU, and I worked with women who reported rape to a crisis hotline. That work offered a chance to listen and talk to many women, including students at Haskell Indian Nations University (also in Lawrence, Kan.). They reached out to the crisis line, too, and the stories of those women showed so much resilience. But I also sensed a deep, deep despair, and after those early experiences and hearing those stories, I wanted to go to law school.

STP: Were there specific moments or topics you learned about while in law school that added to your decision?

SD: I didn’t grow up in a tribal jurisdiction, so I hadn’t been exposed to the inequities in the justice system for Native women. When I got to law school and took up federal Indian law, I expected it to be all about treaties and land … But when professors started to talk about jurisdiction, a light bulb went off, and I thought this is why there are so many disparities for Native American women.

I also remember one time in Lawrence, I was working with and comforting a Haskell student who had been assaulted, and she asked me when the FBI was going to come, and I thought “the FBI wouldn’t respond to this, that’s not what the FBI does.” But whenever there was a violent crime on a reservation, federal authorities would become involved. That revealed a lot to me about the differences on reservations.

STP: You were a part of the effort to get the Tribal Law and Order Act passed and VAWA reauthorized in 2013. Of the two, the debate over VAWA seemed especially bipartisan and lengthy. What’s your takeaway now from that time?

SD: There were arguments that came up that were offensive. But I remember it was actually Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma (who is Chickasaw) who was able to play a big role in making the case for Native American advocates. He was able to reach out to Republican colleagues and explain the plight coming from the perspective of the Native person, since things were pretty clearly divided on party lines. I think Congressman Cole was pivotal in that conversation.

STP: What are the greatest challenges that remain for Native women who are victims of domestic violence or survivors seeking safety through the justice system?

SD: We have a lot more work to do and we’re not done. We were justified in celebrating the reauthorization of VAWA, but we have to get back to work now. You know Alaska was left out of the legislation, and we also need to deal with the broader topic of sexual assault. The Violence Against Women Act only covers domestic (cases), and child sexual abuse is an issue that was not covered by the new legislation.

STP: Your grant was given to you in recognition for your work to date on addressing violence. But it’s also an investment in you and your future. What’s the next step for your work?

SD: I’m still in the brainstorming phase of thinking about all of the possibilities. But there are two prongs to this work — one is federal law reform, and one is tribal law reform. So one thing I want to do is help tribes draft laws and policies that help them … I’m also interested in the subject area of incarcerated Native American women. That’s kind of an emerging issue for me in my work, and I can see myself beginning to launch an awareness campaign and look at policy work in this area.

STP: That’s a topic that has not yet been the subject of broad public discussion. How would you begin to introduce the issues surrounding Native American women who are incarcerated?

SD: Because of the judicial framework, many of them serve their time in federal prison. It’s very difficult to find the spiritual and emotional support that’s needed and that would be culturally based. There are also disparities for Native women. For example, a case I’m working on now involves a woman who committed a crime — a very sad crime — and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison … In a similar case, we found that a person who committed the same crime, who was a white woman, received probation. So you see there’s a disparity in the type of sentences Native women receive and non-Native American women receive (in different court systems). And the Native American women who commit crimes are very often victims of domestic violence that took place in horrific situations, so we need to be able to reach them.

STP: What are your plans personally now, having earned a MacArthur grant?

SD: The financial burden of student loans is something I looking forward to paying off … I may also have time and the opportunity to focus on my heritage in Oklahoma and make a significant effort to learn the Muscogee language. If I were able to take some time away from my teaching job — just a little bit of time — I could go there and learn the language, and I know that would help me in my work.

Mary Hudetz is the president of the Native American Journalists Association and editor of Native Peoples magazine based in Phoenix. Twitter: @marymhudetz.