Indigenous Women’s Rights



Human rights are inherent to being human, regardless of gender or race, and include the right to life, personal safety, freedom from torture, freedom of expression, and much more. Recent women’s rights movements have emphasized the ugly realities women all over the world face every day. That reality is even more severe for many Indigenous women. Facing the highest rates of sexual violence and physical assault of any group in the United States and Canada, they deal with several layers of discrimination, hatred and violence — based on both gender and their native heritage. It’s difficult to know exactly how prevalent the problem is, because it’s so under-reported, but the known statistics are staggering.


Despite differences among hundreds of First Nations tribes, prior to the arrival of Europeans, the balance between women and men’s roles were typically different but complementary. Women worked the land, while the men hunted, fished, and went to war. Many tribes were also matrilineal — wealth, power, and inheritance were passed down through mothers.

When European settlers arrived, they brought with them the patriarchal European value system. Many settlers believed that women were delicate and ill-equipped for hard labor, so when they saw the women working the land, they viewed it as proof that native men treated their women as inferior. They also refused to deal with women when making trade deals. Overall, colonialism functioned to dehumanize indigenous women, forging a culture where women were less valued and thought of as property.


According to the National Institute of Justice, 84% of Indigenous women have experienced psychological, sexual, or physical violence in their lifetime, with more than half of that abuse endured at the hands of an intimate partner. More than 66% of Native women say they have been the victims of psychological abuse by a partner. Comparatively, 35% of women and 28% of men in the mainstream population can say the same. Additionally, more than half of the women that experienced physical abuse also experienced sexual abuse. Nearly 97% of these cases were committed by non-Native individuals.

On top of these shocking statistics, only 38% of those victims were able to access legal, medical, or other support services.


These ongoing high rates of abuse and lack of accountability persist for many reasons. There is little, if any, education regarding domestic abuse in schools on reservations or access to awareness support services. The historical trauma of colonialism can present itself in an endless cycle and leave victims feeling like there is no way out and no end in sight. Additionally, young survivors of sexual abuse or violence can grow up to become perpetrators as adults. Native communities also face low education levels, poor healthcare, high rates of homelessness and poverty — all circumstances that can foster a society linked to high rates of violence.

The remoteness of reservations, lack of resources to help survivors, and cultural differences can stand in the way of seeking help both off and on reservation. In addition, due to concerns about outsider perception, tribal groups may not be inclined to report violence against women.


There is often widespread confusion regarding who has jurisdiction over the investigation and prosecution of crimes on reservations.

Tribal courts do not have jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators, so if a white person commits murder or rape against a First Person, the FBI has jurisdiction over those crimes. However, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report, when tribal law enforcement sent sexual abuse cases to the FBI and U.S. Attorney General Offices, federal prosecutors declined more than two-thirds of them.


The Red Road aims to educate and empower Native American women and communities on the realities of domestic abuse and women’s rights. We also advocate tribal criminal jurisdiction and aim to provide Indigenous communities with the infrastructure and knowledge needed to ensure the safety of Native women and girls within their communities.