Forms of Violence Against Native Women

by Luana Ross (Salish), Department of Women Studies, University of Washington
Colonialism was, and remains, an act of violence. Historically, Native women were violated by agents of the United States and supposed model citizens (for example, John Sutter). In Indian boarding schools set up by the federal government, Native children were forbidden to speak their languages and were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by government employees.

drawing of a bear
A bear by Haida Indians, Queen Charlotte Islands.

Today in the U.S., a form of violence is the fact that Natives are overrepresented in prisons. This disparity is more clearly seen at the state level. For example, in 1992 Native Americans in Montana were approximately 6 percent of the total state population and while Native men comprised 17 percent of the total male prisoner population in Montana State Prison, 25 percent of the total female prisoner population were Native women. It was recently reported that Native women are now 40 percent of the total female prisoner population in Montana.
Personal experiences of imprisoned women reflect a societal structure in which certain subgroups are penalized because of their race/ethnicity, nationhood, gender, and class. This is particularly clear when the violence experienced in prisoners’ lives prior to incarceration, and their subsequent criminalization, is examined.
My research, at the Women’s Correctional Center (WCC) in Montana, found that 90 percent of imprisoned women were violently victimized prior to their incarceration (see Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality, 1998). Their histories were characterized by violence of every form including: physical, psychological, denial of culture, poverty, racism, and sexism. Moreover, the violence is institutionalized. These women were violated by family members, boyfriends, jail, reform school, Indian boarding schools, and foster and adoptive care. The oppression is as complex as it is relentless.
Most women in Montana are imprisoned for a crime that is alcohol and/or drug related. Additionally, some are imprisoned for killing abusive family members, while others assert their innocence and are falsely imprisoned. Yet many are imprisoned because they experienced too many soul-murdering events and are mere shadows of their true selves.
Experiences in prison illustrate another form of violence. Despite the rhetoric, the social environment of prisons represent control not rehabilitation. In prisons there is a violent subculture; one that emerges from a brutal society bent on punishing those labeled “criminal.” While some imprisoned Native women effectively resist oppressive prison conditions, others find that they cannot endure prisonization – the regime becomes intolerable.
There is a “breaking” process employed by the WCC, which involves the overuse of mind-altering drugs, lengthy time in lockup, physical and sexual abuse, denial of visitation with children, and denial of Native cultures. Prison experiences are particularly harsh for Native women, who are removed from their children and may suffer sexual abuse at the hands of criminal justice system officials. One Native woman I interviewed was raped seven times by a county jailer. It is not uncommon for imprisoned Native women to attempt suicide or self-mutilate as a way to relieve their emotional turmoil.
Many imprisoned Native women would like to relay their experiences of the racialized treatment and violence that they encounter. Nevertheless, they are intimidated by prison officials and many stories go untold and the oppression continues. Prisoners who have fallen out of favor with prison officials inevitably suffer retaliation. It should not bewilder anyone that Native women serve long stretches in maximum security or isolation for “behavioral” problems. Time in maximum security or isolation is another form of violence that Native women endure.
As in the past, brutality against Native women continues. Native women are violently victimized by individuals – Native and non-Native, family members and strangers – and by institutions. It is important to recognize the complexity and the forms of violence executed against Native women, and how this may affect their status as “deviant” or “criminal.”