2015 Changemaker: Sarah Deer

Sarah Deer
Photo courtesy of Sarah Deer

“A rape-free world may not be a realistic aspiration but ending the phenomenon of rape as an ever-present reality in the lives of Native women is something I hope we can achieve.”
– Sarah Deer

One in three Native women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime, compared to one woman in five in the general population.

“Native women can expect to be raped. They can expect their daughters to be raped,” says Sarah Deer.

The William Mitchell law professor has been working to end rape and violence against women – especially Native women – since she was a 20-year-old volunteer at a rape crisis center in Lawrence, Kansas, where Haskell Indian Nations University is located.

“The women who called our hotline, who were raped on campus or back on their homeland, never found solace or support,” Deer recalls. “This was so pervasive that women were not surprised when they were raped.”

Those women remain with her because they are the reasons for her life work. “I may not remember names,” she says, “but I remember faces.”

In her 2015 book, “The Beginning and End of Rape,” Deer writes, “Indigenous people across the world share a common experience – namely, an intrusion on their lands and culture by an exterior, hostile outsider. Rape victims experience the same dynamic, but it is played out on their bodies and souls rather than on the land.”

Federal law took the ability to prosecute many sex offenders away from tribal governments, creating impunity for rapists and contributing to the high incidence of rape of Native women. Deer and others have worked for changes in federal laws to end that impunity. The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act were steps toward that goal, but much more work remains.

She and others will continue to push for changes in federal laws in order to restore power to tribal governments. She is also working to help tribal governments change laws and what “we do as nations,” Deer says.

“We’ve done work on drug and alcohol abuse and youth suicide,” she says, “but rape and domestic violence are still not given the high profile I think they should have in most nations.”

Deer hopes her book will make information from her law review articles more accessible to “people outside of the academy,” especially advocates and survivors of sexual assault. She hopes that Native survivors, especially, will find in the book “something to validate their experiences.” She also sees her book as a call to action to tribal leaders.

A 2014 grant from the MacArthur Foundation led to a project with her own Muscogee nation, planning an anthology with other Muscogee scholars that can be used in classes. “We need to assert our intellectual identity as a tribe,” she says.

She is also working with Native women in Minnesota to talk about abuse committed by “people who are spiritual leaders or claim to be spiritual leaders … taking advantage of women and children.” The abuse, she says, is similar to the widely reported abuses in the Catholic Church.

In her work for change, Sarah Deer dreams no small dreams.

Support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2017.
 Indian tribes were given increased jurisdiction in VAWA cases in 2015.
See the Tribal Court introduction to VAWA:www.tribal-institute.org/lists/title_ix.htm and the Department of Justice Tribal Communities page:www.justice.gov/ovw/tribal-communities
To learn more about the National Indian Women’s Resource Center:www.niwrc.org.