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A Call to Action:  Get Involved to Stop Sexual Violence in Tribal Communities

In 2009, the President of the United States declared April Sexual Assault Awareness Month.  This past April, the Department of Justice answered the President’s call to be a partner in raising awareness about sexual violence in a variety of ways.  In North Dakota, we worked to focus attention on the issue of sexual violence in America’s tribal communities.  Such a focus is natural for the Department of Justice, as lawyers in U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the country prosecute many violent crimes, including crimes of sexual violence, that occur on the reservations.

Since I was sworn in as North Dakota’s United States Attorney on August 24, 2010, I have traveled to the reservations in North Dakota to consult with the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold.  Joined by others from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I consulted with tribal council members, tribal law enforcement, Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement, tribal social services, tribal court judges and staff, and tribal detention officials.  During all of these consultations it became apparent that sexual violence occurs far too often on the reservations.  There is one statistic that stands out for me above all others: 
A Native American female baby has a one-in-three chance of being sexually assaulted in her lifetime.
A statistic like this is not a Native American problem; it is an American problem.  As terrible as this statistic is on its face, a deeper look reveals another critical concern:  sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes in America.  In fact, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2008, less than half of all rapes or sexual assaults against women were reported.  Many victims will never seek justice for a host of reasons, including fear of not being believed, having to relive a traumatic experience, or fear of retribution, to list just a few.  Finally, the effects on victims and society are profound.  Many sexual assault victims suffer severe long-term physical and emotional difficulties.  They experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even thoughts of suicide.  One sexual assault is one too many.  From a criminal justice perspective, we must create an environment where victims feel safe reporting crimes to law enforcement so that they can begin to seek the justice they deserve.

In discussing sexual violence in tribal comminutes with friends and neighbors who do not routinely visit the reservations, it is clear that many non-Native Americans are unaware of the levels of sexual violence on the reservations.  When I speak publicly about these issues, the response is often the same.  After my remarks, many members of the audience approach me individually and say, “I had no idea that this sort of thing was happening in our country.  What can I do to help?”  The answers to that question are as varied as the people who ask it, but the common theme is simple:  get involved.  Concerned individuals can volunteer at a local women’s shelter, focus charitable-giving towards efforts to address this issue, talk to members of their houses of worship or civic groups about getting involved on the reservations, or simply insist that, in their presence, victims of sexual violence will not be blamed or shamed into silence.   Together, our actions can be powerful. If we take up the task of reducing sexual violence in our tribal communities, we can make a difference.  So let us challenge every community to learn more about sexual violence, to better understand its impact, and to take a stand against it.  At the Department of Justice, working for greater public safety is not only our job, but  our moral imperative.  Our greatest hope is that more citizens will join us in our quest to meet the needs of victims, hold offenders accountable, and put an end to sexual violence here and around the world.

Now aware of the grim statistic confronting so many Native women, I find myself reflecting on the one-in-three chance of sexual assault when I go to a pow-wow and see three seven-year-old jingle dancers walk into the fading sunlight to begin their dance, or when I see an extended Native family of grandmother, mother, and daughter pumping gas at a convenience store.  Like many of you, I have a mother, a sister, and a wife.  The three women in my family are not faced with this horrific statistic.  The injustice of the fact that Native women do face this statistic is deeply offensive to me and should be to every American.  I am very fortunate that my current post as U.S. Attorney puts me in a position to try to do something about this injustice.  I am asking for your help in this fight.  Please get involved.

Timothy Q. Purdon, United States Attorney, District of North Dakota
April, 2011

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Updated February 9, 2015