Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Native Americans Struggle With High Rate of Rape -

Published: May 22, 2012

EMMONAK, Alaska — She was 19, a young Alaska Native woman in this icebound fishing village of 800 in the Yukon River delta, when an intruder broke into her home and raped her. The man left. Shaking, the woman called the tribal police, a force of three. It was late at night. No one answered. She left a message on the department’s voice mail system. Her call was never returned. She was left to recover on her own.

One in three American Indian women have been raped or have experienced an attempted rape, according to the Justice Department. Their rate of sexual assault is more than twice the national average. And no place, women’s advocates say, is more dangerous than Alaska’s isolated villages, where there are no roads in or out, and where people are further cut off by undependable telephone, electrical and Internet service.

The issue of sexual assaults on American Indian women has become one of the major sources of discord in the current debate between the White House and the House of Representatives over the latest reauthorization of the landmark Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

A Senate version, passed with broad bipartisan support, would grant new powers to tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians suspected of sexually assaulting their Indian spouses or domestic partners. But House Republicans, and some Senate Republicans, oppose the provision as a dangerous expansion of the tribal courts’ authority, and it was excluded from the version that the House passed last Wednesday. The House and Senate are seeking to negotiate a compromise.

Here in Emmonak, the overmatched police have failed to keep statistics related to rape. A national study mandated by Congress in 2004 to examine the extent of sexual violence on tribal lands remains unfinished because, the Justice Department says, the $2 million allocation is insufficient.

But according a survey by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the rate of sexual violence in rural villages like Emmonak is as much as 12 times the national rate. And interviews with Native American women here and across the nation’s tribal reservations suggest an even grimmer reality: They say few, if any, female relatives or close friends have escaped sexual violence.

“We should never have a woman come into the office saying, ‘I need to learn more about Plan B for when my daughter gets raped,’ ” said Charon Asetoyer, a women’s health advocate on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, referring to the morning-after pill. “That’s what’s so frightening — that it’s more expected than unexpected. It has become a norm for young women.”

The difficulties facing American Indian women who have been raped are myriad, and include a shortage of sexual assault kits at Indian Health Service hospitals, where there is also a lack of access to birth control and sexually transmitted disease testing. There are also too few nurses trained to perform rape examinations, which are generally necessary to bring cases to trial.

Women say the tribal police often discourage them from reporting sexual assaults, and Indian Health Service hospitals complain they lack cameras to document injuries.

Police and prosecutors, overwhelmed by the crime that buffets most reservations, acknowledge that they are often able to offer only tepid responses to what tribal leaders say has become a crisis.

Reasons for the high rate of sexual assaults among American Indians are poorly understood, but explanations include a breakdown in the family structure, a lack of discussion about sexual violence and alcohol abuse.

Rape, according to Indian women, has been distressingly common for generations, and they say tribal officials and the federal and state authorities have done little to help halt it, leading to its being significantly underreported.

In the Navajo Nation, which encompasses parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, 329 rape cases were reported in 2007 among a population of about 180,000. Five years later, there have been only 17 arrests. Women’s advocates on the reservation say only about 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported.

The young woman who was raped in Emmonak, now 22, asked that her name not be used because she fears retaliation from her attacker, whom she still sees in the village. She said she knew of five other women he had raped, though she is the only one who reported the crime.

Nationwide, an arrest is made in just 13 percent of the sexual assaults reported by American Indian women, according to the Justice Department, compared with 35 percent for black women and 32 percent for whites.

In South Dakota, Indians make up 10 percent of the population, but account for 40 percent of the victims of sexual assault. Alaska Natives are 15 percent of that state’s population, but constitute 61 percent of its victims of sexual assault.

The Justice Department did not prosecute 65 percent of the rape cases on Indian reservations in 2011. And though the department said it had mandated extra training for prosecutors and directed each field office to develop its own plan to help reduce violence against women, some advocates for Native American women said they no longer pressed victims to report rapes.

“I feel bad saying that,” said Sarah Deer, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota and an authority on violent crime on reservations. “But it compounds the trauma if you are willing to stand up and testify and they can’t help you.”

Despite the low rates of arrests and prosecutions, convicted sexual offenders are abundant on tribal lands. The Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, with about 25,000 people, is home to 99 Class 3 sex offenders, those deemed most likely to commit sex crimes after their release from prison. The Tohono O’odham tribe’s reservation in Arizona, where about 15,000 people live, has 184, according to the Justice Department.

By comparison, Boston, with a population of 618,000, has 252 Class 3 offenders. Minneapolis, with a population of 383,000, has 101, according to the local police.

The agencies responsible for aiding the victims of sexual assault among American Indians are often ill prepared.

The Indian Health Service, for instance, provides exams for rape victims at only 27 of the 45 hospitals it finances and, according to a federal report in 2011, did not keep adequate track of the number of sexual assault victims its facilities treat and lacked an overall policy for treating rape victims. Additionally, the health service has just 73 trained sexual assault examiners.

The Justice Department, which has increased the number of F.B.I. agents and United States attorneys on Indian reservations and is seeking to help the Indian Health Service train more nurses, said combating sexual violence was a priority.

“There’s no quick fix. There’s no one thing that will fix the system,” said Virginia Davis, deputy director for policy development in the department’s Office on Violence Against Women. “We’re taking a systematic approach to this — thinking about different ways to solve the problem.”

In the meantime, the problem persists. Lisa Marie Iyotte, 43, who was raped on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, said prosecutors had never told her why they did not charge the man arrested in that crime. He was later convicted of another rape, and when he was released from prison in 2008 and moved back to the reservation, no one told her, she said. She has not seen him yet.

“When I think about it, I say, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” she said. “I don’t know.”

Nine hundred miles away, in the Navajo Nation, Caroline Antone, 50, an advocate for the reservation’s victims of sexual violence who has herself been raped, said sexual assault was virtually routine in her community.

“I know only a couple of people who have not been raped,” she said. “Out of hundreds.”

Saturday, May 05, 2012

A Repository for Eagles Finds Itself In Demand -

Published: May 4, 2012

Miles from downtown Denver, in a small warehouse on the city’s edge, Bernadette Atencio watched as two men methodically bundled piles of dead eagles into boxes, careful to include enough frozen gel packs so the remains would not thaw.

“This one’s going to Prescott, Ariz.,” Ms. Atencio said, nodding toward one bird tightly parceled in plastic. “That one’s going to Pendleton, Ore.”

Despite appearances, this was not some surreptitious animal-smuggling ring. It was a typical Wednesday at the National Eagle Repository, the only place where American Indians can legally obtain bald and golden eagles from the federal government for traditional ceremonies.

Through a series of federal acts dating to the 1940s, bald and golden eagles have been fiercely protected. It is illegal to hunt the birds and also to collect feathers or eagle parts without the proper permit.

And so, for more than 30 years, this United States Fish and Wildlife Service program has been shipping thousands of eagle carcasses and parts to American Indians, who view the animals as sacred.

But a growing backlog of applications, and a slew of recent court battles over when American Indians can lawfully obtain eagles on their own, has raised questions about whether the repository is sufficient.

Currently, tribal members seeking an immature golden eagle, the most coveted bird, must wait about four and a half years. Wait times for a bald eagle are two years. Despite the efforts by the Wildlife Service to ship animals as swiftly as possible, the waiting list has swelled to more than 6,000 applications.

“More and more of our young people are going back to our spiritual way of life, and we can’t do our ceremonies without the eagles,” said Lee Plenty Wolf, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe who lives in Fort Collins, Colo., and received a bald eagle on April 26 after waiting almost three years.

Federal law, however, forbids anyone without a specialized permit who finds a dead eagle or eagle feathers from taking them. Each week on average, the repository receives dozens of dead eagles or parts sent from across the country by state and federal wildlife officers. Some have died naturally; others were roadkill or electrocuted by power lines.

But with 4,500 requests coming in each year, the repository simply does not have enough eagles, said Ms. Atencio, who supervises the warehouse, in an old Army maintenance building.

“It’s a supply and demand issue, and we need more supply,” she said. “It’s a double-edged sword. To fill all the requests in a timely manner means we need more dead birds.”

Having to wait so long to use eagles in religious ceremonies has become a source of frustration for many tribes.

“Eagles are sacred to us, so of course we are interested in eagle protection,” said Melissa Holds the Enemy, a lawyer for the Crow tribe in Montana. “But there is a huge disconnect that is not being addressed. Protecting eagles and accommodating Indian religious freedoms do not need to conflict with one another.”

Driven by the delays, the Crow have been fashioning a plan to present to Fish and Wildlife officials that would allow tribal members with permits to keep dead eagles found on tribal land, Ms. Holds the Enemy said.

Daniel M. Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an e-mail that the agency was especially sensitive to American Indians’ religious needs and recently streamlined the application process to reduce wait times.

Mr. Ashe also cited a special program that has, in recent years, allowed five tribes to keep injured eagles that could not be released in the wild. The tribes are permitted to distribute naturally molted feathers for ceremonial use, but cannot kill the birds.

“We understand the importance of eagles to the religious beliefs of tribal members, and we are committed to doing everything we can, within the boundaries of federal law and our mandate to ensure healthy eagle populations in the wild, to improve tribes’ access to eagles for religious purposes,” he said.

Debate over the issue has also played out in courtrooms of late. In 2005, a Northern Arapaho man, Winslow Friday, was prosecuted for killing a bald eagle on tribal land. Mr. Friday’s lawyer, John Carlson, argued that the repository’s wait time was intolerably long and that when birds were sent to tribe members, they were often too badly burned or decomposed for use.

A federal judge in Wyoming, William F. Downes, dismissed the charge against Mr. Friday. But the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, overturned the ruling. Mr. Friday eventually pleaded guilty in tribal court and paid a $2,500 fine.

In March, the Fish and Wildlife Service granted the Northern Arapaho a permit to “take,” or kill, two bald eagles for religious purposes. The tribe, which initially applied for the permit more than two years ago, had filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 saying the process was taking too long. Applications for such permits are rare.

On March 30, a lawyer for the Northern Arapaho filed an amended complaint in federal court in Cheyenne, Wyo., calling the permit “a sham” because it forced the tribe to obtain the eagles off its reservation, which left tribal members subject to prosecution under state law.

According to Jerome Ford, assistant director of the Wildlife Service’s migratory bird program, a joint tribal statute between the Eastern Shoshone tribe and the Northern Arapaho, who share the Wind River Reservation, prohibits the taking of eagles on the actual reservation.

The permit was “the only option that did not create a conflict” between the two tribes, he said.

As that case continues, Fish and Wildlife officials planned to meet this summer with tribal governments to figure out ways to speed the process for receiving eagle feathers.

“This is an issue across all tribal nations,” said Myron Pourier, who sits on the executive board for the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota, which hopes to build its own eagle repository. “All of them are going through the same federal red tape when they shouldn’t be. Especially when this is a part of our way of life.”