Book Review: The Beginning and End of Rape by Sarah Deer


Wow. At the intersection of rape culture and colonialization is The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America.

My intent in this book is to explore the interconnectedness of surviving colonization and surviving rape.

Life is really all about education. If you’re not growing your mind, you’re dying. And it’s this kind of book that needs more exposure of only to understand what really goes on in the world so we can make a difference.

This book really brings up the issue of tribal law and how we’ve treated it, how non-native Americans should be subject to it, and the impact we’ve had in its changing over the years. It covers tribal rape law, what the data shows, the culpability of the federal government, where we need to go in the future.

Indeed, the crisis of rape in tribal communities is inextricably linked to the way in which the United States developed and sustained a legal system that has usurped the sovereign authority of tribal nations. This colonial legal system has failed Native women by supplanting women-centered societies with patriarchal, oppressive structures that condone and thrive on violence as a way to control and oppress members of marginalized communities. These oppressive structures are predicated on hundreds of policies, regulations, and philosophies that underpin American justice.

The thing is, this book says as much about colonialization and Native American rights as it does about rape – the two are tied together.

It is irrefutable that, based on the available data, violent crime is experienced by Native women at per capita higher rates than almost all other groups in the United States.

I am not aware of a single study (federal, state, or tribal) containing a statistically significant group of AI/AN [American Indian / Alaska Native] in which the data do not suggest that Native people suffer the highest rates of victimization in the United States.

I’ve noticed that some skeptical politicians will try to claim the statistics are being manipulated to further tribal sovereignty interests, but these same politicians usually don’t provide alternative data. Perhaps they are too uncomfortable with the fact that white men are still raping Native women with impunity.

The sad thing is that these “savages” were much less barbaric in their thinking than the white colonizers.

Patriarchy is largely a European import. Native women had spiritual, political, and economic power that European women did not enjoy. That power was based on a simple principle: women and children are not the property of men.

Europeans were often fascinated by the anti-rape cultures they encountered, particularly when they discovered that Native men did not rape women war prisoners.

Even Europeans who wrote disparagingly about Native people noted that Native people abhorred sexual violence. Brigadier General James Clinton of the Continental Army told his troops in 1779, “Bad as the savages are, they never violate the chastity of any women, their prisoners.”

And their law at the time even surpasses ours today when looking at the crime of rape.

When compared to the European and early American laws on rape, which often punished women for the actions of rapists, the tribal response to sexual assault was comparatively victim-centric and respectful of survivors.

Not only is the idea of colonialization bad enough, but raping of the females of the indigenous peoples was something that naturally came along with it.

At the same time, the colonial mind-set could not conceive of a legal wrong in raping a Native woman. As a result, Native women were devalued and debased, and their abuse was seen as being outside the law.

Historian Albert L. Hurtado notes of the nineteenth-century California gold rush, “Part of the invading population was imbued with a conquest mentality, fear and hatred of Indians that in their minds justified the rape of Indian women.”

Native women who are raped in the United States today face a legacy of laws that historically have protected perpetrators, allowing them to commit rape with impunity. Rape is more than a metaphor for colonization, however; it is integral to colonization.

I didn’t realize that the US government had issued official apologies to the Indigenous people of this land. Unfortunately, they’re more symbolic than anything, expressing regret but not taking any responsibility. I guess that’s the way we do things.

One apology was given at the end of the Clinton administration and posted on the BIA website. It was taken down when Bush took office.

Relations between Native Americans and the federal government have never been good – but it’s even worse when it’s the actual Federal Officials committing rape.

Before forced relocation, Native American women had no rights, could be raped by white settlers, and would have no recourse. After moving to reservations (or even being forcibly marched to them), where they relied on the military and traders to live, they often succumbed to rape by these same soldiers and traders.

Changes in laws have been made in the last few years, but these changes barely scratch the surface of what needs to be done.

The bottom line is that we have done a really shitty job in protecting women and responding to survivors of rape, especially with regard to indigenous women. Reform still needs to happen.

It is clear that federal laws and policies are insufficient to address the fundamental needs of Native women living in tribal communities, who have not been able to trust the federal or state systems to respond to their experience. That is why deliberate restoration of tribal authority is crucial for long-term change. Decision-making authority and control over violent crime should be restored to indigenous nations to provide full accountability and justice to the victims. Even as systemic federal agency reform is taking place, there will always be the foundation of wide gaps created by a system originally designed to destroy, not heal. Tribal jurisdiction (both civil and criminal) must be completely restored without restriction. Nothing less will do.

Thanks to NetGalley and University of Minnesota Press for a copy in return for an honest review.


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