New Health Curriculum Seeks to Educate Native Americans about Sexual Violence

The program focuses on shifting cultural norms away from accepting sexual assault as the norm

July 5, 2012 -- According to Department of Justice statistics, 86 percent of sexual assaults reported by Native American or Alaska Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men. That statistic contrasts sharply with reports of sexual assault by American women of other races, who usually are attacked by a man of their same race.

“There's a history of Native people not prosecuting non-Native people who come on the reservation,” said Tawna Sanchez, director of Native American Youth Family Center, who has helped develop a sexual violence education plan aimed at Native youth that takes that imbalance into account. Sanchez said tribes cannot currently prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes on their land, which leads to perpetrators going free and a continuation of violence, as well as leading individuals on reservation lands to accept sexual violence as the norm.

The curriculum – an eight-week course designed to be taught in high schools – was created because organizers couldn't find any other sexual health programs for Native youth that addressed sexual violence specifically. Sexual violence prevention programs also tend to be geared toward the general population, and don't take into account the historical and cultural factors that lead to both the high rate of assault on reservations, and the fact that rapes are likely to go unreported.

Part of the problem is that some men likely realize that if they commit a sexual assault on a reservation, they know they will get away with it because Native populations have historically seen violence against women as inevitable, something they can't do anything about.

Part of the solution is empowering young Native women to recognize that sexual violence is not normal or something they have to accept. The problem isn't limited to reservation culture, either, Sanchez said.

“Things that happen in Indian country trickle down to Native populations in urban areas.”

In addition to accepting rape as normal, Native communities have also come to accept violence against sexual minorities as normal – another aspect of sexual violence the curriculum seeks to address.

“Traditionally, our people were much more accepting of gay and lesbian people,” Sanchez said. Many tribes believed sexual minorities had sacred status, but that belief has eroded, partly due to the arrival of Christian missionaries.

The curriculum Sanchez helped develop to address these issues was taught for the first time last spring at NAYA's alternative high school in Portland, and again this spring at Chemawa Indian School in Salem. Now she hopes to take the curriculum to the Umatilla Reservation.

The curriculum was tweaked somewhat after the first time it was presented to remove some buzzwords, but was well received overall, she added.

Many Native women accept sexual violence by non-Native men because it likely stems from historical factors, including the historical presence of military on Native soil and, more recently, the culture in boarding schools.

“We can't fix it. It's something that's been broken for a long time, but the question is -- how do we change the pattern of thinking for the next generation?” Sanchez said.


Amnesty International report on violence against indigenous women:

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