Staff Picks: 'The Beginning and the End of Rape' by Sarah Deer


Pictured: Sarah Deer, author of 'The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America

The Beginning and the End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America by Sarah Deer is a must read book for anyone working in the anti-sexual violence field, especially for white women in this work. For me, this book heartbreakingly illustrates how rape was, and continues to be, used as a tool of colonialism. Central to the book, I learned that rape was not the norm in pre-colonial Native America, but Native people did have their own cultural responses to rape that were victim centered: “And be it farther enacted if any person or persons should undertake to force a woman and did it by force, it shall be left to woman what punishment she should satisfied with to whip or pay what she say be law.” This law is strikingly different than the English rape laws of the time which gave no woman a say, as the crime of rape was, by law, a crime against the husband or father. Colonialism took the power away from Native people to respond to rape in their own way. The author, Sarah Deer, describes how tribal sovereignty is linked to sexual assault; that one cannot have autonomy over themselves if their land and people are not autonomous. She describes how after colonization, tribes lost their power to hold non-Native perpetrators of sexual violence accountable, increasing native women’s risk of sexual violence by non-Native people. Deer writes, “the damage to self and spirit that rapists cause has some of the same features that colonial governments perpetrate against entire nations.”

Sarah Deer lays out complex legal and policy issues that affect Native women through a feminist lens and in an understandable way. She walks the reader through how federal laws dating back to the Major Crimes Act of 1885 have impacted tribal sovereignty and could have attributed to the high rates of Native women raped by non-Native men. I learned that the Major Crimes Act (1885), Public Law 280 (1953), the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968) as well as the United States Supreme Court opinion of Oliphant v. Suquamish in 1978 all essentially took power away from the tribes and gave that power to the federal government to prosecute felonies, like rape, when the perpetrators were not tribal members. As you might imagine, the federal government rarely prosecuted these crimes and it wasn’t until the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 that the federal government had to collect data and share with the tribes about how many cases were reported and how many cases were prosecuted. You read that right: 2010.

The 2013 Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act created circumstances where tribes could prosecute non-Native people in the case of domestic violence, but protections for sexual assault, trafficking, and child sexual abuse did not pass. This is a dangerous and deadly loophole that perpetrators take advantage of to assault Native women and children. Yet somehow this was seen as controversial by many legislators in the last reauthorization of VAWA. Tribes must be afforded the power to create systems to address crimes like rape, assault, and child abuse.

At the end of the book, Deer offers ideas for tribes to transform their laws regarding rape. As a white woman in this work, reading this book made it even clearer how rape, colonialism, and tribal sovereignty are linked and how crucial and necessary it is to support Native Americans in their ongoing fight for sovereignty. As Deer wrote, “The end of rape in Native America will be directly tied to the accountability of federal, state, and tribal leaders who fail to intervene when Native women are raped.” Let’s be accountable to our Native people. That accountability can start with understanding our own history, the history of the Native American people, and the violence of colonialism. It is indeed a fight to end sexual violence.

Elizabeth Edmondson Bauer, the author of this month's staff picks, has worked in victim services and violence prevention since 1999. She comes to the Resource Resource Sharing Project after 12 years with the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. She earned her Bachelor’s of Social Work from Middle Tennessee State University in 2000 and began her career at the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. She works for the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault under it's national Resource Sharing Project, as the Sexual Assault Services Program Technical Assistance Specialist.

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