“Women would be appalled if they knew about this outrage.”
Why are men who rape Native American women getting away with it? Mariane Pearl, widow of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, finds out–and meets the hero who’s helping victims heal.
The Fort Randall Casino and Hotel, near the town of Lake Andes, South Dakota, stands like a mirage amid nothing but miles and miles of fields. Only the occasional antiabortion sign or wild turkey crossing the road breaks the monotony of the vast landscape. As I settle into my hotel room, I hear a woman panting loudly next door. A man’s voice comes through the paper-thin wall: “Bitch,” he says. Then the TV goes on.
Owned and operated by the Yankton Sioux tribe, the casino is open 24 hours a day and is the main employer for the 6,000 Native Americans who live on the Yankton Sioux reservation, partially located in Charles Mix County. Still, poverty is rampant: Unemployment among South Dakota tribes averages 70 percent. In the streets, I see no children playing, no elders rocking on their porches, no bookstore or flower shop, and just one tiny grocery store. You can always find a drink, though–sadly, alcohol abuse is a widespread scourge.
But I’ve come here to report on another tragedy that gets far too little attention: According to U.S. Justice Department figures, more than one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime, and they are two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped than non-Native women. And these estimates are widely assumed to be low because so many rapes go unreported. “We found anecdotally that the rates could be much, much higher,” says Trine Christensen, a senior researcher with Amnesty International, which published a groundbreaking report on Native women and sexual violence last year. As Charon Asetoyer, an activist on the Yankton Sioux reservation, puts it, “The bottom line is that it’s open season on Native women. Nearly every woman on the reservation has been affected.”
Because of underfunded health services, inadequate law enforcement response and jurisdictional confusion between tribal and U.S. courts, few of these rapes are even investigated, much less prosecuted. No data exists on how many cases go to trial, but Amnesty International and other activists agree: Perpetrators are walking free. “This place is heaven for serial rapists,” Charon says. “Our daughters’ lives are being taken from us.”
Charon, 57, has dedicated her life to fighting brutality against Native women. A Comanche, she founded the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center on the Yankton Sioux Nation’s land–the first of its kind on any reservation when she started it in 1985. Charon’s center is the first place women contact after being attacked, if they seek help at all. “When a victim calls, we’ll either meet her at the emergency room, or take her there ourselves,” Charon says. Her center connects victims with attorneys, acts as an advocate with doctors and law enforcement agencies, and may provide victims with shelter, counseling and child care.
These days, Charon is also traveling the country as an advocate for Native women, speaking to conferences and government officials, including the United Nations. Charon has a soft face and a soothing voice, but she’s also got the iron will needed to break the silence about abuse and injustice: “Our human rights are violated every day,” she says, “and there is very little being done to protect us.” Complete article