Equal protection under the law remains a broken promise to Native women. In September of last year, the Alaska Star reported that a 34-year-old Alaskan man, Justin Scott Schneider, had pled guilty to one count of second-degree assault and reached a plea deal where he will serve no time in prison. His crime was strangling a 25-year-old Native woman until she passed out, and then sexually assaulting her. Anchorage Assistant District Attorney Andrew Grannick said that he'd made the deal with Schneider because he doesn't expect Schneider to offend again, adding, "But I would like the gentleman to be on notice that is his one pass — it's not really a pass — but given the conduct, one might consider it is."
Justice has failed Schneider's victim, the young Native woman who told police, "You don't forget the face of the man who almost killed you." With stories such as this one and the many others like it, it's hard to be hopeful about improving the harrowing conditions that indigenous women face across the United States and Canada.
Federal figures show that more than half of indigenous women in the U.S. have experienced sexual or domestic violence at some point in their lives, and the Seattle Times reports that 94 percent of Native American women in Seattle have been raped or coerced into sex, according to a survey from the Urban Indian Health Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As a Native woman, I know that our suffering cannot be quantified by statistics, especially statistics formulated by governments that have actively tried to erase us. What's realer to me, though, is the people who must live with these tragedies and injustices each day.
I often worry about my community members on Seabird Island in British Columbia, where threats against Native women seem to loom almost daily. It feels like an incurable epidemic. The stories come so quickly it's hard to follow them all or mourn long enough before another tragedy appears. Close to my reserve on Seabird Island, my friends in Chawathil First Nation had to rely on their own community to search for Shawnee Inyallie, a young woman who disappeared in their community without a trace. The family was frustrated with the lack of support from authorities, and her body was only discovered after months.
On my own reserve, a friend of our family's, Stacy McNeil, was interviewed on APTN National News this summer regarding a recent incident: She and her family were at a fish camp between Hope and Yale in British Columbia, when a boatload of fishermen exposed themselves then urinated and made unwanted sexual comments to her in front of the children there. She said her hands were shaking as she called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to report the incident.
Stacy has been working in the tribal office since she became an adult, and she's become a role model for many people where I'm from. Imagining her bringing her family to have a day by the river, only to be met with indecency and sexual aggression, is sad but not surprising. Women where I'm from are familiar with these types of men. And while I'm glad Stacy called the police, none of us who have lived with these predations our whole lives can seriously expect that these men, or the others like them, will be brought to justice.
It feels like indigenous people are left alone to endure these things, and to carry the weight of them when justice isn't delivered. I'm uncertain what justice would look like for Stacy, or for the 25-year-old woman whom Schneider assaulted, and it hurts daily to know that Shawnee wasn't found in time. I am not without hope — but hope gets a little heavier, and harder to carry, every time I hear stories like these. I know that, as a community, we can help heal and protect one another, but when one falls victim to a crime, we must often rely on systems that have rarely served us; systems that have historically negated our humanity and our rights as sovereign people. Every nation has its history of disenfranchisement or government violence and removal. There are no Native people untouched by colonial violence.
The only thing I can control is myself, my memory, and my engagement. I keep sharing and reading these stories, and teaching my children to look out for themselves. I do this because it feels wrong to ignore them or look away. Sometimes, on a good day, I turn from hopelessness to anger and mobilization. I'm able to meet and speak to other Native women at cookouts, or university speaking events, or in the classroom, or online, about what we are doing to fight back. In those conversations, we usually recognize that, while we might not be able to change things immediately, we can invest in one another with something as simple as advice on a resumé, because sometimes upward mobility helps us stay visible and safe. We're able to talk about what these stories mean to us, and why the statistics don't illustrate fully our experiences. They — the people removed from the experiences of Native communities — see numbers; we see faces. We see people we know, and we see ourselves.
Sometimes we simply talk about prayer, or about what our grandmothers would do in the face of this type of injustice and cruelty. Our grandmothers, after all, survived long enough to birth our mothers, who survived long enough to give us life — a new generation. There is some hope in that.
Editor's note: The headline of this article was clarified after publication.
This story originally appeared as A man assaults a native woman — and never sees a day in jail on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.