OKLAHOMA CITY - U.S. senators are expressing alarm at the frequency of rape in Indian country and have vowed to write legislation to help Indian and Alaska Native women who are victims of sexual assault get medical attention and justice.
The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said Congress must address the legal boundary issues that complicate some prosecutions, strengthen law enforcement and ensure victims have immediate access to trained nurses, The Oklahoman reported from its Washington bureau.
"We've really got to turn this around," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who became emotional when discussing the impact the assaults had on women and communities.
Murkowski's state was one of those studied in an Amnesty International report, released in April, which detailed the problem of sexual assaults against Indian women. Oklahoma, which doesn't have reservations but has a patchwork of state and tribal land, and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota and South Dakota also were studied.
The study relied on interviews with Indian women, law enforcement officers and others to flesh out Department of Justice statistics showing Indian women are 2.5 times as likely to be raped as women in the general population.
Alexandra Arriaga, director of government relations for Amnesty International USA, told the committee that one in three Indian women will be raped at some point in their lives and 86 percent of the perpetrators will be non-Indian men.
Witnesses at a hearing to examine the problem blamed a variety of factors, including a chronic lack of resources for law enforcement; federal laws and Supreme Court cases that have led to confusion about jurisdiction; the remoteness of some Indian communities; and social factors, such as poverty and alcoholism.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the committee, said a Sioux reservation in his state has four police officers patrolling 2.3 million acres.
Dorgan was adamant that Congress do something, saying "it's about real people's lives and a law enforcement system that isn't working."
Jami Rozell, a member of the Cherokee Nation and a schoolteacher in Wilburton, told the committee she was raped in 2003 by a man she had known since she was in junior high school.
She said her father called an attorney friend who warned her that, if she pressed charges, "the state court system would just rape her again."
Rozell declined to press charges immediately but decided a few months later to move forward. The investigation established that the attack, which occurred in her home town of Tahlequah, was not on Indian land.
But before trial, Rozell said she was told by the district attorney's office that, because she had initially declined to press charges, the medical evidence collected the night of the rape had been destroyed. Because of that, she said, the case was basically her word against her attacker's. She declined to pursue it.
Attorney Riyaz Kanji, who specializes in Indian law, told the committee that a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision would make it easier for Congress to establish clear lines of authority in Indian country and eliminate some of the confusion about jurisdiction.