'Sisters Rising': The Fight For Tribal Sovereignty & Ending Violence Against Native Women

Sep 18, 2020

Four out of 5 Native women have experienced violence in their lives. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than all other American women. One out of 3 Native women report having been raped — over 80% of the time, it's by non-Native men.

The terrible fact that attributes to this: people exploit gaps in tribal authority. Native women have no legal protection for domestic violence committed on tribal lands, particularly if it’s done by a non-Native man.

This staggering issue, patterns of violence, and the fight for change is the subject of a documentary called Sisters Rising, which you can watch through the Minority Health Film Festival. It follows six Native women acting in solidarity in the fight for tribal sovereignty and self-determination as the crucial step toward ending violence against Indigenous women in the United States.

"We kind of let [the subjects] guide the shape of the documentary ... Native women are the experts of their own experiences, they know what needs to be done. And so once Dawn White trusted us, she started pulling in other women to work on the film with us and it was kind of like a cascade, sort of a whisper network of meeting all of these incredible women," says Sisters Rising co-director Willow O'Feral. 

Gwen Moore, who represents Wisconsin's 4th Congressional District, is featured in the documentary. She says she first started to become more aware of the disproportionate rate of violence against Native women when she was the co-chair of the bipartisan Women's Caucus. Moore has also personally experienced domestic violence and was the prime author of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization in the 2010/2011 congressional cycle. 

Moore notes that the review of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act found that there weren't adequate protections for LGBTQ women, women of immigrant status and Native American women. 

"When you talk about Native American women experiencing domestic violence 3.5 times more than other women you wonder, what is it? Is it something about Native women that they attract all these predators? No! It’s because they have no protection legally," says Moore.

This is mainly because of the Oliphant Decision — a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that determined tribes didn't have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators, according to Moore. 

Moore says the last Congressional cycle added more amendments to strengthen protections for Native women in the Violence Against Women Act, but the bill is currently held up in the Senate.

"The big issue was that they did not want white men to be subject to jurisdiction of tribal courts ... we're not giving up Native women in order to pass this bill," she says.

Sgt. Dawn White, a subject of "Sisters Rising" walks around the lake on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
Credit Courtesy of "Sisters Rising"

While the federal forces are supposed to address serious crimes committed on reservations against tribal people by non-tribal people, O'Feral says most of those cases are dropped.

"There's so much racism in this country that is targeting Native people as less than," she says. "You add that to the piece where they don't actually have legal protection as much as non-Native women do and you just have this mess that is largely invisible to the rest of the population." 

Sisters Rising is helping share the stories of Native women. And Moore says citizens can do more to help reduce the rate of violence and help create some equity in regard to state and local taxes to help fund the needs of reservations. 

"We can stop being ignorant, first of all," she says. "We have to realize that these were the first peoples ... [and] why should a road stop at the end of the street because the rest is reservation land?"

Co-director Brad Heck also notes that Americans, particularly white Americans, must unlearn implicit biases and assumptions about different people. As the film has been shown, he says the most common reactions from non-Native people are rage, anger and wanting to do something. 

"[Don't] be afraid to show up," says Heck. "Show up and know that you're going to show up imperfectly, make mistakes, learn from them, and then show up again."