2014 MacArthur Fellow Sarah Deer has brought worldwide attention to the disturbingly high rates of violence against Native American women and the enormous barriers they face finding justice through the legal system. She’s also helped change U.S. law to begin addressing the issue.
A former rape crisis counselor, citizen of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, law professor and co-director of the Indian Law Clinic at William Mitchell College, Deer worked with Amnesty International on a 2007 report on sexual violence against Native women. Together with other grassroots organizers, she helped pass new laws to expand the sentencing power of tribal courts and give them some—though still quite limited—power over non-Native defendants accused of crimes on tribal lands.
In a 2009 paper published in Native Feminism, Deer noted that Native women face the highest rate of sexual violence in the U.S., and that most perpetrators of the crimes are white. The cases are generally prosecuted in U.S. federal courts, which creates both logistical problems—issues of geographic distance and cultural and language barriers—and philosophical ones—the nature of rape as a weapon of colonialism and the nation’s history of recognizing only white women as legitimate victims of rape.
Deer proposes a vision for a new way of handling these crimes within tribal court systems, drawing on traditional Native concepts of justice. Special victim-centered rape courts, something like those in place in South Africa, could allow women elders to respond to reports of sexual assault. Rape would be viewed as an attack on the entire community, not just individual victims.
JSTOR Daily spoke with Deer by phone about her work.
Q . How did your background as rape crisis counselor and Native woman shape your outlook as a legal scholar?
A. I’ve had kind of an unorthodox path to my current position. I had always been interested in women’s issues. I started working as a rape crisis volunteer, and after spending some time watching jury trials with victims, I thought, ‘well you know what that sounds like something I could do to support victims of crime in my role as a prosecutor.’ But then my world took a little bit of a turn and I didn’t end up prosecuting. I ended up working for the federal government out of law school, working for the Office on Violence Against Women.
Q. What was it like working with Amnesty International and getting the Tribal Law and Order Act passed?
A. It was amazing. The organization that I worked for at that time was the Tribal Law and Policy Institute. Amnesty International contacted our organization about partnering on a report they wanted to do on the violation of the rights of Native women. We entered into a relationship that involved the sort of background research, field research, and then the development of the report. After the report was released then we also worked on the activism and lobbying. It was a very good experience. I think Amnesty was new to Native issues, at least in the United States. They had done some work in Canada. So it was a learning experience for both of us, and the synergy was great.
Q. How do you balance your time with teaching, research, advocacy, and everything else you do?
A. It is very difficult. If anyone has any advice, have them get in touch with me. Fortunately, I have a lot of passion for what I do, and that is energizing, but it can be difficult to balance the world of academia with the world of activism. Fortunately, I work at a law school where that kind of thing is encouraged.
Q. What do you see as the most important goals right now in improving justice systems for Native people?
A. I think we really want to see full criminal jurisdiction returned to the tribes. Right now there are three tribes that are working very, very hard to implement the small fix that we were able to achieve, so a lot of credit and energy is being generated by those particular tribes, and then many will follow. We want to make sure that we get this part right, the initial implementation of the law, and then continue to work to restore full criminal jurisdiction.
Q. You talk about creating a different way of looking at sexual violence within the tribal legal systems. Do you see concrete steps toward exploring that?
A. I think so. One of the frameworks that we work with is that patriarchy and violence against women are Western intrusions or Western inventions that found their way into tribal communities that weren’t always structured that way. So there were matriarchies, and matrilineal descent is a really important part of some tribal cultures. So it’s more about reclaiming or redefining that tradition than it is sort of coming up with innovative or novel approaches. But you’re trying to revitalizing something in the contemporary context, so there is tweaking to be done. But it’s exciting to think about when tribes are really revitalizing their language, their culture, their foodways, all of these different aspects of living, that nonviolence is part of that, so it’s not disconnected from the other sovereignty efforts.
Q. Are there particular things that the fellowship will enable you to do?
A. Absolutely. I’m still in the brainstorming phase—that’s my sound bite. But it will give me some relief of debt, as somebody who’s still paying off student loans, and that in and of itself feels freeing. But I also have a couple of projects in mind that are just sort of percolating now. Another book project, I can conceive being in the works, as well as just working in my tribal community with language and culture, and being more aware. I’m disconnected because I’m in Minnesota, my tribe’s in Oklahoma, so the funds will facilitate me perhaps going to Oklahoma more often and spending more time there and coming up with some Muscogee-centered projects.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
A. Just that I am not the only person working on this issue. I don’t know why I got picked over these other amazing people who are working on the same issues, and it’s really a community effort, a grassroots effort.