For Native Americans Facing Sexual Assault, Justice Feels Out Of Reach
By Melodie Edwards, November 15, 2017, NPR
One morning earlier this year, Northern Arapaho member Rose was sitting at the table with her 14-year-old daughter, Latoya.
"I told her to move her hair because she had her hair like this," said Rose, showing how Latoya pulled her hair over to hide her neck and cheek. "Because I noticed something ... she had marks, hickeys, just completely covering her, even almost on her face."
That's when Latoya told her mother that she had been forcibly kissed by a woman from another reservation who was six years older. (NPR is using only their middle names because they fear retaliation.)
"At that moment, I saw me in her," Rose said. She took a deep breath and this time there were tears in her voice. "And there was just nothing I could do for her except let her know, it's not your fault; it's OK; I'll protect you."
Rose wanted more than anything to protect her daughter because when she herself was 6, she too was molested by an older girl. Studies show that 1 in 3 Native American women is sexually assaulted in her life. But Rose wanted to stop that cycle of abuse.
According to a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 36 percent of Native Americans living in majority-Native areas say they avoid calling the police because of a fear of discrimination. And nearly half say they or a family member feels he or she has been treated unfairly by the courts. But thanks to a recent law, a small number of tribes are creating their own court systems in hopes they will process cases faster and restore trust.
That morning, Rose called the tribal police. But they immediately referred her to the FBI since her tribe isn't qualified to handle felonies.
After an investigation, though, federal prosecutor Kerry Jacobson declined to pursue Latoya's case. As with most assaults, the case rested solely on the victim's testimony.
"The only allegations involve the subject touching the minor's lips, neck and upper chest and the knee and those areas do not fall within the definition of sexual contact," Jacobson said, explaining why she declined the case.