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The Colonial Roots of Violence Against Native American Women

March 2, 2023

Native American women in the United States are experiencing a crisis of violence and sexual abuse. Understanding the violence requires acknowledging the colonial roots of this crisis.

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Robin Whyatt

In an article published today in the February/March 2023 issue of The Progressive Magazine, Robin Whyatt, Professor Emeritus in the Columbia Mailman School Department of Environmental Health Sciences, emphasizes that violence against Native American women is a public health crisis: more than half experience sexual violence at some point during their lifetimes and one out of three is raped. Between 86-96 percent of the sexual abuse of Native women is committed by non-Indigenous perpetrators who are rarely brought to justice.

This violence has its roots in colonial history, starting with Columbus’s 1492 expedition. Prior to that time, Whyatt writes, Native American women were honored and important in tribal life. Violence against women was rare and tribes were usually egalitarian. “Leadership was viewed as a shared responsibility,” according to Whyatt, with women taking an active role in the political process and occasionally becoming tribal chiefs.

During European colonization, however, violence against Native women became a central element in of the colonial strategy for conquest and genocide. Whyatt points out that women were targeted due to their ability to sustain the tribes through childbearing. By 1900, only around 250,000 Native Americans were still alive in the United States, a significant decline from a pre-1942 population estimated in the millions. While the spread of European diseases played a major role in this population loss, the colonial focus on tribal extermination, including the relentless massacre of Native women, as well as the elimination of food resources, starvation and poverty, all contributed.

Ultimately, the colonial legacy of violence has left deep scars in Native American communities, and has normalized and fuels the high levels of sexual abuse and violence against Native women today. Native women are still experiencing the brutality of colonization according to Whyatt. Unconscionably, most Americans know little of this history. “This must change” says Whyatt. “Society must widely acknowledge the settler-colonial history of brutality and genocide. The traditional respect, fortitude, resilience, and nurturing role of Native women need to be recognized and honored.”

Previous research by Whyatt focused on the effects of environmental exposures during pregnancy and early childhood. As the deputy director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) , she examined the effects of prenatal exposure to pesticides and endocrine disruptors on birth outcomes and child cognitive and behavioral development in the CCCEH longitudinal birth cohort. She is currently a non-Indigenous resident of the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) in Montana and is a member of the CSKT Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Work Group as well as a board member of the Flathead Reservation Human Rights Coalition.

After moving to the Flathead Reservation in 2019, Whyatt says she became concerned and started researching the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. She wrote the article with the encouragement of Ellie Bundy, a CSKT Tribal Council woman and Presiding Officer of the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force.

“I got involved in this crisis because I see the trauma it is causing Indigenous women across the U.S. today,” says Whyatt. “They go missing by the thousands, are murdered at rates many times the national average and are experiencing unbearable levels of sexual abuse. On some reservations, Indigenous women say they don’t know even one woman who has not been raped. Consequently, they tell their daughters what to do when—not if—raped. Most disturbing, the vast majority of the perpetrators are non-indigenous. It is a devastating public health issue that must become widely known and addressed.”