Sexual Assault of Native American Women on the Rise

ByKatie Reilly

This piece was co-written with Marielle DeJong.

To combat the high rate of sexual assault of Native American women, funding should be reallocated to tribal law enforcement agencies to provide victim support and foster communication between tribal and federal investigators.

As a result of the unprecedented rates of violent crimes against Native American women, there has been an increase in legislation dealing with criminal investigations and legal procedures on Native American reservations. For example, the Stand Against Violence and Empower Native Women Act (SAVE Native Women Act) aims to improve victim treatment as well as investigative and legal processes by strengthening the authority of tribes to hold perpetrators responsible. Currently, tribes do not have jurisdiction if the crime involves a non-Native perpetrator or victim, or if the crime does not occur in Indian Country.

The SAVE Native Women Act was introduced to Congress on October 31, 2011 and co-sponsored by 11 U.S. senators. Recognizing tribal sovereignty and tribal self-determination, the U.S. federal government works directly with the 566 different tribes and villages as separate governments. In 2011 the Government Accountability Office released a report detailing the need for improved communication between tribes and the U.S. Attorney’s office. Because of limitations on investigation and sentence length, tribes often depend on federal authorities causing gaps in jurisdiction and miscommunication because both governments represent constituencies with different interests and values.


The law enforcement program within the Public Safety and Justice department of the BIA has requested a funding increase from the Department of Interior for the 2012 budget. These funds should be used to establish a program that would improve communication and cooperation between the federal and tribal law enforcement agencies.

According to Associate Attorney General for the Department of Justice Tom Perrelli, “research shows that law enforcement’s failure to arrest and prosecute abusers both emboldens attackers and deters victims from reporting future incidents.” Research shows that a greater certainty of being caught is a more effective deterrent than an increase in the severity of punishment. In cases involving assault of Native American women, perpetrators are frequently not caught nor are they adequately prosecuted due to a flawed jurisdictional framework.

Next Steps

Congress should enact the SAVE Native Women Act, and the Department of Interior and the BIA should advocate for the reallocation of funds toward programs that prevent and address violent crimes against Native American women. Additionally, officers should be educated in Native American history by law enforcement experts, Native historians, and community leaders. A law enforcement training program that encourages both efficient communication and cultural understanding will lead to a justice system that more effectively investigates crimes and prosecutes criminals.