Photo by Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Culture of hyper-sexualization leads to high rates of sexual assault for Native American women

Nearly half of all undergraduate Native American women on the UW-Madison campus have experienced sexual assault, according to a 2015 campus survey on the issue.

For Sam Johnson, UHS Violence Prevention Manager, this statistic is startling but not surprising.

“Perpetrators of sexual violence, particularly repeat offenders, strategically pick and choose who their victims are going to be,” Johnson said. “And one of the things they look for is, ‘How well connected is this person to the community socially? How likely are they to be believed if they were to report this to the police?’”

The UW-Madison campus is home to few Native American students, only 100 students self-identified as Native American on their application, and about 400 identified as Native American and something else. But while Native students have formed communities of support on campus, they still face erasure and isolation on such a large campus, according to Mariah Skenandore, outreach director and co-president of Wunk Sheek, one of UW-Madison’s Native American student groups.

Emily Nelis, a recent UW-Madison graduate in social work and resident of the Bad River reservation, has studied the impact and cause of sexual violence against the Native community.

“I don’t think anybody would really truly understand why it’s such a high number for Native women specifically,” Nelis said. “I think it stems from the idea that violence against Native women goes without … consequence for these non-Native perpetrators.”

Because of policies surrounding tribal sovereignty, when non-Natives commit crimes — including sexual assault — on reservations, the state government is not permitted to intervene. But the tribal government does not have jurisdiction to press charges against non-Natives either. Instead, the federal government is responsible for intervening, but according to Skenandore, there is rarely redress brought against these perpetrators.

Ninety-six percent of sexual violence against Native women is perpetrated by non-Native men. For Johnson, this statistic is part of the “best evidence” prevention experts have about the victimization of Native women.

“Within social groups it’s typically people that are in the same demographic perpetrating crimes because we live as communities and as people we tend to live in segregation based on racial and ethnic lines,” Johnson said.

Intergenerational trauma and colonial violence are often overlooked in discussions about the high rates of sexual violence against Native women, according to Nelis. But they also have a huge effect on why Native communities are victimized.

Native women are expected to fit in this sexual box, in a headdress and with dream catchers everywhere. It really stems from appropriation, honestly, because people appropriate our culture and sexualize themselves while wearing things that traditionally indigenous people would wear.

“The effects of intergenerational trauma have both psychological and physical effects on Native people and if you look through a timeline of, say, federal Indian policy … [violence] is pretty prevalent in a lot of that history,” Nelis said.

Sexual violence and trauma were a common part of many of children’s experiences in federally run Indian boarding schools. Native American children were sent to these schools in an effort to eradicate Native culture.

This historical violence against Native children is still not well understood today but plays a role in the continuous sexualization of Native women, according to Skenandore.

Many Americans grew up watching the Disney movie “Pocahontas,” but few know the true story of her life, Skenandore said. In real life, Pocahontas was a 14-year-old rape victim who was taken from her family.

“Disney’s version of “Pocahontas” is the most problematic thing I’ve ever seen,” Skenandore said. “For people to turn it into some sort of love story or something is really disgusting and I think in doing so people sexualize Pocahontas and then they sexualize Native women.”

This hyper-sexualization translates to the everyday experiences of Native women on the UW-Madison campus today, according to Skenandore.

“Native women are expected to fit in this sexual box, in a headdress and with dream catchers everywhere,” Skenandore said. “It really stems from appropriation, honestly, because people appropriate our culture and sexualize themselves while wearing things that traditionally indigenous people would wear.”

While the UW-Madison campus sits on Ho-Chunk land, indigenous students can’t always feel safe here, Skenandore said.

Walking down State Street, she often receives unwarranted and racist attention from men, asking “what are you?” It’s a question Skenandore says stems from their desire to categorize and exoticize non-white women. Then, she says, when men find out she’s Native, they take the exotiziation to a different level.

“If I were to try to educate them in that situation or reject them fully, there’s no saying that they won’t become violent, so for my own safety I have to feed into what they’re saying, at least a little bit,” Skenandore said. “I can’t talk away from that situation … and in doing so those men think what they are doing is okay, but there’s no way for me to express that.”

This education is a large part of what Johnson does as a violence prevention manager with UHS.

“One of our prevention strategies is men’s engagement … certainly not all people who perpetrate sexual assault or sexual harassment are men, but about 95 percent of perpetrators are,”Johnson said.

Following the climate survey results, the UHS team worked to educate themselves on how to specifically support the Native women on UW’s campus. Through trainings with the former UW-Madison American Indian Campus and Community Liaison and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, the team worked to understand the experiences of Native women on campus, as well as learn about Native culture.

“You’re not ready to talk about this intersection of this issue before you even know the 101 information about history and culture,” Johnson said.

In the year following the release of the campus climate survey, Johnson said, she made an effort to participate in cultural events in the Native community and inform students about the resources available through UHS.

“Even though there are 43,000 students and 63 native students, our job is to prevent violence before first-time incidents,” Johnson said. “Being connected with communities who are most at risk is part of preventing violence.

[The administration] doesn’t help us at all. We don’t have any real guidance or resources and I think that when I do reach out it really depends on who I am reaching out to whether or not they are responsive or receptive. I think the things that they do for their women, they do for white women.

In the months following the survey release, the university also planned a healing circle for Native American survivors of both sexual violence and racism at the Dejope fire circle. A Ho-Chunk elder facilitated the ceremony, but the event was interrupted by two white students yelling stereotypical Native American “war-cries.”

“Everybody in our circle was really shocked, but the elder he just kept going, you know he didn’t pay it any attention,” Nelis said. “It was shameful, it really was … we were angry, we were sad.”

While the perpetrators of the incident were forced to apologize and punished for their actions, both Skenandore and Nelis don’t feel the university has done enough to support Native American women on campus.

Nelis wishes the university did more to incorporate Native cultural practices when addressing issues of sexual violence against native women. These practices include sweat lodges and other traditional healing ceremonies.

For Skenandore, the limited spaces meant to support women on the UW campus focus primarily on the experiences of white women and leave out Native voices — which is problematic on a campus that lies on Ho-Chunk land.

“[The administration] doesn’t help us at all. We don’t have any real guidance or resources and I think that when I do reach out it really depends on who I am reaching out to whether or not they are responsive or receptive,” Skenandore said. “I think the things that they do for their women, they do for white women.”

Meredith McGlone, UW-Madison’s director of communications, stated that the university is continuously working to ensure the voices of all students are heard.

“After the 2015 AAU survey highlighted the special needs of certain groups of students, including Native women, we responded with additional efforts targeted to those groups,” McGlone said in a statement.

Despite the marginalization of Native women, Skenandore is grateful for the opportunity to study at UW-Madison and hopes to use her privilege to elevate the voices of others who may not feel heard.

“We focus too much on our oppression and not enough on our privilege and we sit here feeling sorry for ourselves … yes I’m a woman, but I’m able bodied, I’m light-skinned, I live in an apartment right now, I’m going to school, I’m privileged in all these ways,” Skenandore said. “We need to advocate for folks who don’t have a voice.”


Luisa de Vogel Box