On July 4, 2013 Hannah Harris’ body was found badly decomposed after four hot summer days after being sexually assaulted, brutally beaten, and murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Despite it being a clear cut case of murder, Garret Wadda was sentenced to just 10 years for his role in the crime. Harris had fought against his rape attempt before being killed by him and another defendant, a woman named Eugenia Ann Rowlanda. The defendants themselves pretended to help look for Harris in a search operation after she was reported missing.
“I don’t know how you were raised, but you don’t rape women, you don’t kill them, you don’t hide them, you don’t bury them,” a grieving mother, Melinda Harris, told Wadda at his sentencing. “People say if you want to get away with murder, go to the reservation. I think it’s true.”
On June 28, 2016, Roylynn Rides Horse died after fighting for her life for 72 days after being beaten, strangled, doused with gasoline, and severely burned on the Crow Indian Reservation. Four passengers in a vehicle—both men and women all in their early 20s—did nothing to stop the person who did it.
I can go on and keep listing terrible instances like these on reservations, but these are just a couple of recent very local stories haunting me; such as when LaFonda Big Leggins and Koren Nola Diebert were killed, according to The Billings Gazette, in beatings “so severe that the women's faces were unrecognizable when their frozen bodies were found in a ditch in a remote area of the Crow Indian Reservation.” Evil has no skin color or nationality, but it’s worth noting these killers and those involved are all tribal members.
And therein lays a major root of a problem of an ongoing crisis: Natives flatly refusing to look at Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women as part of an internal problem. As far as the Northern Plains goes, by far and large the primary perpetrators of #MMIW.
Yet, instead of admitting steps must be taken amongst us, many Native activists instead inadvertently become apologists for our own bourgeoning rape culture, usually citing debunked statistics claiming Native women are by far raped and sexually assaulted by whites and non-natives—ergo giving Native men a pass, as if they’re somehow beyond reproach.
I noticed a lot of these statistical misconceptions stem from a widely cited 2013 New York Times piece called Rape On Reservations by Native American author Lois Erdrich (The Roundhouse). In support of renewing the Violence Against Women Act, Erdrich wrote, “More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.”
Any discerning observer of Indian country would have found that 80 percent dubious. While one must not understate the importance of the VAWA, it’s irresponsible journalism to keep lamenting such a stat as gospel. As proven in the long run, all it’s done is shirk responsibility tribal members need to acknowledge so they can move forward with a plan of action to combat the violence against women and #MMIW plagues.
In 2012 piece titled Crime Data Misrepresented to serve Hidden Tribal Agenda, Indian Country Today Media Network took issue to these statistics stemming from incomplete 2007 Amnesty International and 2004 Bureau of Justice reports.
Indian Country Today cited according to the BOJ, 72 percent of Indian reservations don’t (or won’t) share crime statistics to state or federal databases. However, for those tribes that did report to state agencies like in South Dakota, go figure 92 percent of American Indians were killed by another American Indian. And far from the 80 percent claim of sex crimes being committed by non-Natives, it was actually the near exact opposite number as 83 percent of reported rapes of Native reservation women were committed by another Native. A bitter truth, but doesn’t it simply make more sense logically?
The Amnesty International report itself stated, “In addition to underestimating the scale of sexual violence against Indigenous women, the limited data available does not give a comprehensive picture. For example, no statistics exist specifically on sexual violence in Indian Country and available data is more likely to represent urban than rural areas.” (Emphasis added.)
Even statistics representing Native women in urban areas are questionable and should have an asterisk if used. Indian Country Today put it bluntly of those using these misleading numbers, “Tribal leaders, lawyers, academics and multiculturalists who have written articles, testified before government committees and lobbied law makers using these reports are either unethical or dangerously careless or both.”
While there are jurisdiction issues, law complications, and FBI indifference, we are the ones allowing the atmosphere of violence against Native women to manifest to #MMIW. What point is there in protecting rapists and sex offenders on our reservations by continuing to blame shift by hiding behind erroneous numbers?
Natives readily latch onto instances where whites hurt Native women while ignoring our own male cousins, uncles, dads, and brothers committing the vast majority of violent acts against women amongst us. We can no longer remain content to keep blaming the FBI after a tragedy happens, all while we did nothing to prevent it from happening in the first place.
We need to be our Sister's protectors and be proactive about it in a sovereign and independent way that honors our ancestors’ resilience. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a Lakota woman sang a song to inspire and give courage to those warriors were going to face hails of bullets and possible death.
"Brothers-in-law, now your friends have come.
Would you see me taken captive?"
Nope, they did not. They'd protect their women, their families, their own children, and would readily die to prove it—and many did. Where is our coordinated warrior caste abiding by that mentality now?
In dealing with hard problems, hard solutions are needed, and looking inward is much harder than pointing fingers. No amount of outside political legislation or blame can fix an inherent problem we refuse to acknowledge in the first place.
We alone hold the solution.
Adrian Jawort, Northern Cheyenne, is a journalist and writer based in Billings, Montana. He is co-founder of theNative American Race Relations Healing and Lecture Seriesand founder ofOff the Pass Press, which aims to promote and produce indigenous literature.