A report in The Guardian has highlighted the disappearances and murders of at least five Native American women in the Duluth, Minnesota area since last May. Activists in the community have said that these murders were most likely linked to sex trafficking in the area. Duluth’s port has long been a hub for sex trafficking operations, with Native American women in nearby communities being particularly vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
This trend in Northern Minnesota is indicative of a broader history of systemic violence and institutional neglect affecting Native American women. Throughout the United States, Native American women suffer disproportionately from sexual violence, with a third of them expected to experience it in their lifetime. Sexual violence has become such a common part of Native females’ lives that some talk about “when” they will be raped, not “if.”
Among other racial groups in the United States, most violent crimes are intraracial. In contrast, about 80 percent of reported assaults against Native women are committed by non-Native men. This is in large part because, although tribal reservations have their own separate laws and court systems, these do not apply to non-Native individuals. Non-Natives have thus found it easy to commit crimes such as rape on Native territory with virtual immunity from legal consequences.
It was only in 2013 that Congress partially closed this loophole by giving tribes the power to prosecute in cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse between a Native American and a non-Native partner. However, such crimes between strangers are still not covered. As has been the case in Duluth, police officers have often been unable – or even unwilling – to pursue cases of violence against Native women or undertake serious searches if they go missing. Many Native survivors don’t see the point in reporting acts of sexual violence to law enforcement at all.
The un-navigable patchwork of legal jurisdictions currently governing Native women’s lives puts an this already extremely marginalized population at risk. Crimes against Native women in communities like Duluth will continue until the law is reformed to fully protect them, and authorities take this problem seriously.