Sarah Deer’s powerful new book, The Beginning and End of Rape focuses on sexual violence in Native America. The beginning goes back to the European invasion, with rape used as a tool of genocide and conquest. Now, as then, when European American men rape Native women, U.S. legal systems help them escape punishment. In an eminently readable book, law professor and MacArthur genius grant winner Sarah Deer describes the historical trajectory of rape and rape laws, beginning with the historical connection between rape and conquest / genocide / white patriarchy and legal systems.
“[R]ape in the lives of Native women is not an epidemic of recent mysterious origin. Instead, rape is a fundamental result of colonialism, a history of violence reaching back centuries. An epidemic is a contagious disease; rape is a crime against humanity” (Introduction, x).
A series of U.S. laws made rape of Native American women easier and less likely to be prosecuted. Tribal courts have jurisdiction over Native Americans on tribal lands— but not jurisdiction over non-Native criminals. That means European Americans who rape women on tribal lands cannot be prosecuted in tribal courts. They could be arrested and prosecuted in federal courts, but that has not been a priority for federal prosecutors and courts. So they get a free pass. That’s part of the reason that Native American women suffer the highest rate of rape of any group in the country.
Beginning with her volunteer work as a rape crisis counselor during her undergraduate days, Deer hears and respects and re-tells the stories of women who have survived rape. Without minimizing the importance of each woman’s experience, she insists:
“Indigenous people across the world share a common experience—namely, intrusion on their lands and culture by an exterior, hostile outsider. Rape victims experience the same dynamic, but it is played out on their bodies and souls, rather than on the land. …
“All other challenges faced by tribal nations are linked to the history and trauma of rape” (Introduction.)
Deer traces the history of rape from colonial times to the man camps of North Dakota’s fracking fields.
As a lawyer, Deer traces the historical and legal complexity of “a patchwork of various federal and tribal laws that work in tandem to utterly obfuscate justice” (Chapter 3, p. 31). She traces the advances made by the Tribal Law and Order Act (2010) and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, while recognizing their shortcomings.
As a Native American woman, Deer points out hopeful possibilities of restoration of tribal jurisdiction and writing tribal laws on rape, sexual violence and domestic abuse. She suggests theoretical approaches that could avoid the traditional patriarchal definitions of rape and move forward to “conceiving of rape as an unlawful ‘invasion’ of body, mind, and spirit” (Chapter 8, p. 114). That invasion is a crime against the individual woman and also against the community. While outlining possibilities for an indigenous jurisprudence of rape, Deer also warns against temptations to romanticize the possibility of “peacemaking” and restorative justice approaches.
While grounded in consideration of Native American issues and jurisprudence, The Beginning and End of Rape also has relevance and application in non-Native communities and an analysis that reaches beyond the legal framework.
Often books by lawyers and academics are hard for non-lawyers and non-academics to read. This one is not. Sarah Deer’s writing style is accessible and eloquent, as well as scholarly. I highly recommend this book to anyone concerned in the connections between sexual violence and political life.