Attorneys Edyael Casaperalta and Kristen Carpenter, both with the American Indian Law Program at the University of Colorado Law School, talk about the rights of indigenous people at the Rural Women’s Summit. (Photo by Shaw Poynter)

Greenville, SC – On tribal lands in America, four of every five Native American women are victims of violence, and one in two are victims of sexual violence.

But because of their designation as indigenous people, many times, there’s nothing they can do to bring their attackers to justice.

Attorneys Kristen Carpenter and Edyael Casaperalta, both with the American Indian Law Program at the University of Colorado Law School, told audience members at the Rural Women’s Summit that the rights of indigenous peoples are an issue that is being addressed at the United Nations.

For the more than 570 Native American tribes in North America, the designation of an indigenous people affords them unique rights, Carpenter said. More than 2 million people in America are considered indigenous, she said.

But the same laws that grant those rights limit their self governance and interfere with their ability to police non-tribal people who break the law on tribal lands.

“There is currently an epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women,” Carpenter said. “For generations, family members have watched their mothers, daughters and grandmothers disappear… Every indigenous family has such a story. It’s only recently come to light that it’s systemic.”

A study out of Canada, Carpenter said, found that adult indigenous women and girls made up 12 percent of the victims of homicide, even though indigenous women make up only 4 percent of the population.

In the US, the number of attacks on indigenous women are so staggering that women teach their female children what to do when they will be raped, not “if” they will be raped, she said.

Federal law prevents tribal law enforcement from prosecuting non-tribal members who commit crimes on Native lands she said. Because of this, reservations have become havens for law breakers, she said.

“We have created a gap in the law that allows for that violence to exist,” she said.

Tribal leaders have tried to work with the federal government, but the complex and ineffective legal system  has prompted Native Americans to head to the United Nations, she said. The UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People is a start to providing rights to indigenous people the world over.

“If the problem is with your federal government – you lobby with whatever structure is in power. If your own federal government is telling you there is nothing you can do about this because you don’t have the right, then you go to the international systems,” she said. “This declaration says that. Indigenous people are people – we have to respect their governments… we have to respect their laws… This declaration was a monumental moment in recognizing the innate ability of indigenous people to govern themselves.”

The situation presents itself around the world, she said.

For Prairie Rose Seminole, a presenter at the summit and American Indian Alaska Native Program Director, Evangelical Lutheran Church, the rights of indigenous peoples are personal.

“It takes an act of Congress to recognize my existence,” Seminole said. “But people have to recognize that our fight for our water, is your fight for water. Our fight is your fight, it’s not just mine.”

(The Rural Women’s Summit is produced by the National Rural Assembly, part of the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder. You may follow the summit on social media using #RuralWomenLead or via FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. The Daily Yonder also has compiled stories from the Summit.)

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