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Serving Ethnic and Racial Communities

American Indian Victims

Most women who are beaten or raped don't report to the police. They
just shower and go to the clinic [for treatment].100

Over the past decade, Federal Government studies have consistently shown that American Indian women, per capita, experienced more rape and sexual assault than any other racial group in the United States.101 One U.S. Department of Justice report concluded that more than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped during their lives.102 However, American Indian advocates state that these statistics provide a very low estimate and that rates of sexual assault against American Indian women are actually much higher. For example, many elders state that they do not know any women in their communities who have not experienced sexual violence.103

Read on for information about—

Cultural Considerations

When faced with the devastating impact of sexual violence, cultural ties can be a major strength for many American Indian victims and their families. Naming ceremonies, talking circles, feasts, spiritual belief systems, ceremonial dress, and cohesive family and community structures can provide victims with enormous help and support.104

To develop and achieve culturally relevant services for American Indians, you must recognize the importance of American Indian healing traditions—traditions that vary among and within Native nations. Another part of working toward culturally relevant responses includes understanding the sovereign status of Indian nations, becoming familiar with the federal trust responsibility, and recognizing how the effects of oppression, colonialism, and racism have caused unresolved pain in many American Indian lives.105

Use caution, however, in applying any concepts to a particular American Indian victim. It is neither expected nor possible to know all aspects of all American Indian cultures. However, it is important to understand American Indian law, tribal history, and how colonization has been addressed. You also should have a general sense of American Indian tradition and contemporary realities. In particular, show respect and be committed to an active stance of social justice that underscores the inherent sovereignty of indigenous peoples.

The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence has adopted
a position statement on tribal sovereignty.

Tribal Justice

Tribal courts and victim response systems vary tremendously. More than 550 federally recognized American Indian/Alaska Native tribes exist in the United Sates, each with separate and distinct judicial systems. Some Indian nations have justice systems that mirror the structure of U.S. courts, while others have retained their indigenous justice forums. Most tribal justice systems include victim-sensitive components that include victim-witness services, probation departments, and correctional alternatives.106

To address criminal justice issues in Indian Country and services for victims, it is vital that you promote productive relationships between Indian nations, the Federal Government, and state governments.

Jurisdictional Considerations

When sexual assault occurs in Indian Country, the law enforcement response could include tribal police, state or local law enforcement, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and/or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In some cases, the difficulty of determining criminal jurisdiction, particularly when there may be concurrent jurisdictions, can translate into blurred jurisdictional boundaries, untimely action, or worse still, no action at all.


To this end, you must understand the importance of working collaboratively with tribal jurisdictions. Most importantly, non-Native organizations and governmental agencies must continue to recognize, affirm, and support the fact that Indian nations retain the inherent sovereignty and authority to prosecute American Indian perpetrators of sexual assault.

For example, Public Law 83-280 (commonly referred to as Public Law 280 or PL 280) was a transfer of legal authority (jurisdiction) from the Federal Government to state governments, which significantly changed the division of legal authority among tribal, federal, and state governments. Public Law 280 is a controversial and complicated statute. It is often misunderstood and misapplied. The Tribal Law Clearinghouse created a document, Public Law 280: Issues and Concerns for Victims of Crime in Indian Country, which explains some of the controversies and challenges.

SART Services

Culturally specific models of sexual assault response are the most effective in meeting victims' needs. For examples of culturally specific responses, see the Tribal Law and Policy Institute's Resource Guide for the Development of a SART in Tribal Communities, which tribal organizations can consult to develop a comprehensive response to sexual assault using the SART model. If you are not a member of a tribal community, consult with tribal organizations in your area about available culturally specific services and partner to provide services and referrals.

Consider some of the following ideas, found in Sexual Victimization in Indian Country:107

  • Use talking circles or other American Indian ceremonies as an avenue for addressing sexual victimization. In talking circles, participants take turns speaking without interruption.
  • Involve elders or traditional healers.
  • Learn and use terms or phrases relevant to the tribe, particularly those terms related to sexual assault, health, and spirituality.
  • Review images used in your materials and consider whether they are culturally relevant. Keep in mind, however, that "merely adding images of native women to otherwise culturally insensitive materials is not sufficient."108

As is true for any community you are targeting, determine the best ways to disseminate information about your services, and remember that the "best way" will vary by community. According to Sexual Victimization in Indian Country, "the best way to disseminate information will vary across communities, but local cable access channels, local radio stations, bulletin boards in frequented offices and stores, parent-teacher meetings at schools and Head Start, public restrooms, pow-wows, and other community events are all good places to advertise. It is unlikely that many victims will approach advocates in such public settings, but these strategies raise awareness."109


American Indian Health
Brings together health and medical resources pertinent to the American Indian population, including policies, consumer health information, and research.

The Changing Federal Role in Indian Country
Discusses the Federal Government's revised efforts and approach in handling crime and justice on Indian lands.

Framework of Tribal Sovereignty—American Indian Policy Center
Provides a historic overview of sovereignty: Indian governments have inherent sovereignty, which is not derived from any other government, but rather from the people themselves.

Impact Evaluation of STOP Grant Program for Reducing Violence Against Women Among Indian Tribes, Final Report
Assesses 123 American Indian projects that received grant funding under the STOP (Service, Training, Officers, Prosecutors) grant project of the Violence Against Indian Women program.

Indian Health Council, Inc.
Dedicated to the continual betterment of Indian health, wholeness, and well-being.

Indian Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Raises the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health of American Indians and Alaska Natives to the highest level.

Indian Law Resource Center
Provides legal assistance to American Indian and Alaska Native nations who are working to protect their lands, resources, human rights, environment, and cultural heritage.

Justice in Indian Country: A Process Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Justice Indian Country Justice Initiative, Final Evaluation Report
Investigates ways to improve coordination among the federal and American Indian nations justice systems.

Maze of Injustice
Provides information on and recommendations for overcoming law enforcement policing issues, providing forensic medical examinations, overcoming barriers to prosecution, and providing accessible support services for survivors.

Mending the Sacred Hoop Technical Assistance Project
Improves the safety of American Indian women who experience battering, sexual assault, and stalking by offering training, technical assistance, and resource materials that specifically address violence against American Indian/Alaska Native women.

National American Indian Court Judges Association
Supports American Indian and Alaska Native justice systems through education, information sharing, and advocacy. Its membership is primarily judges, justices, and peacemakers serving in tribal justice systems. The site offers publications and links to tribal organizations and tribal codes, tribal constitutions, and court opinions.

The National Congress of American Indians Resolution #TUL-05-101
Supports the adoption and implementation of national policy and protocols on rape and sexual assault within Indian Health Service Unit emergency rooms and contract health care facilities. The resolution also supports funding for collaborative efforts between governmental and nongovernmental service providers in developing and implementing comprehensive sexual assault policies and protocols within Indian Health Service emergency rooms.

National Indian Justice Center
Designs and delivers legal education, research, and technical assistance programs that improve the quality of life for American Indian communities and the administration of justice in Indian Country.

National Map of Federally Recognized Tribes
Shows Indian land as well as contacts for regional Indian program managers and coordinators.

National Native American Law Enforcement Association  
Promotes and fosters cooperation between American Indian law enforcement officers and private industry and the public.

National Victim Assistance Academy Textbook, Chapter 3, Section 4: Tribal Justice
Covers the relationship of tribal justice systems to other local, state, and federal systems; differences between the tribal justice system and the U.S. criminal justice system; and federal support for Indian Country programs.

Office of Tribal Justice, U.S. Department of Justice
Facilitates the coordination of a broad range of American Indian issues to help unify the federal response. The Web site provides information about grant and funding opportunities, public safety and law enforcement, publications, and statistical studies.

Policy Issues
Lists a broad range of policy issues that intersect with the response to sexual violence and provides information on tribal governance, community development, health and human services, Alaska Native issues, cultural protection, and native Hawaiian issues.

The Principles of Advocacy: A Guide for Sexual Assault Advocates
Focuses on sexual assault against American Indian and Alaska Native women and explores specific elements of perceptions, policy, and other key factors to determine the scope of the problem.

Public Law 280—Tribal Law and Policy Institute
Provides legal considerations for Public Law 280 and links to other documents.

Resource Guide for the Development of a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) in Tribal Communities

Provides a starting point for developing victim-centered SART teams in tribal communities.

Rights and Remedies: Meeting the Civil Legal Needs of Sexual Violence Survivors
Provides information on tribal legal issues and lists tribal/nonprofit organizations and national tribal coalitions in chapter 6.

Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence, Support, Training, Access, and Resources (SAFESTAR)

Trains health care workers in tribal communities to gather and maintain sexual assault forensic evidence for use in tribal, state, and federal courts and to make appropriate health care and other service referrals.

Sexual Victimization in Indian Country—Barriers and Resources for Native Women Seeking Help
Covers barriers to help-seeking behavior, includes resources for American Indians who have experienced sexual victimization, and describes how to incorporate culturally congruent practices into service delivery.

Southwest Center for Law and Policy
Provides legal education, training, and technical assistance on domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, child abuse, abuse of persons with disabilities, and stalking to tribal communities and to the agencies and professionals serving them.

Tips for Non-Native Medical Providers Working In Alaska Native Communities
Offers practical tips for service providers working with American Indian victims.

Tribal Justice and Safety in Indian Country
Aims to improve the safety of American Indian and Alaska Native communities and helps the public and federal agencies involved to learn more about tribal justice and safety issues in Indian Country.

Tribal Law and Policy Institute
Provides access to research, training, and technical assistance programs that help enhance justice in Indian Country and the health, well-being, and culture of Native peoples.

Tribal Strategies Against Violence: Cross-Sites Evaluation Report
Evaluates the performance of four American Indian tribes under the Tribal Strategies Against Violence initiative, a federal-tribal partnership intended to reduce crime, violence, and substance abuse. Also available in the Tribal Strategies Against Violence series:

Trust Responsibility, American Indian Policy Center
Provides a historical overview of the federal trust responsibility that arises out of the nationhood of tribes.

Victim Services: Promising Practices in Indian Country
Describes promising practices for assisting victims of violence and abuse in 12 Indian Country locations throughout the United States. Each description includes the program's keys to success, relevant demographic data, and a contact for further information.

Violence Against Indian Women, Final Revised Report
Describes a study in which researchers studied an area's readiness to develop and implement effective violence-prevention efforts in 15 American Indian communities in both urban and reservation settings. The study concludes that measures to prevent violence against women must involve multiple systems, use tribal community resources, and consider historical and cultural issues.