Native American women in the United States are two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of any other race. This staggering and awful statistic illustrates that there is a profound epidemic of sexual violence going on in Native communities, and lest people think this is an internal issue, much of that violence is coming from white men.
Tribes across the country are struggling with the issue and attempting to work within their own communities to heal and fight sexual violence from within, while also bridging with US government organizations and other groups to promote the health, safety and welfare of indigenous women.
Such groups have their fingers on the pulse of these issues among Native Americans, and thus, their concerns about a possible unanticipated side effect of Keystone XL approval should be taken seriously. They fear that if construction on the controversial pipeline proceeds, it could endanger Native women even more, especially in South Dakota. Their worries are based on several solid and important reasons.
One is the known and ongoing history of sexual violence against Native women, and the fact that the issue has not been resolved despite considerable advocacy work. Given the fact that Native women are already extremely vulnerable, anything that would increase that vulnerability (like huge temporary pop-up cities of pipeline workers and personnel) is a cause for concern — Native women are already considered to be easy, “soft” targets for would-be rapists, and men who know they’re passing through are even less likely to believe they’ll be held accountable for their behavior.
Concerns about pop-up cities are well-merited, as spikes in sexual violence have already been documented in other regions affected by resource booms. Where large groups of men go, sexual assault tends to follow, as for example in communities invaded by men connected with the oil and gas industry. The Department of Justice fears that such settlements can become breeding grounds for rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, in addition to other forms of crime, and marginalized communities like local Indigenous people are often the target of such crimes.
Furthermore, South Dakota is considered to be a sex tourism destination by some residents of the United States, who flock to the region for several annual events. As such, it has become a magnet for sex trafficking and sexual abuse, with Native women being involved in an estimated 40% of cases; the Wild West air of the state combined with the oil and gas boom has created an atmosphere that is almost proudly and defiantly lawless. It has also, of course, fed misogyny and violence against women.
Given that, the Keystone XL pipeline could have tremendous long-term consequences for Indigenous communities already trying to address racial injustice and violence. Sexual assault and violence leave life-long legacies that impact not just victims, but their communities, especially when they occur on a widespread scale like that currently happening in Indian Country. The pipeline’s construction could lead to yet another generation of brutalized Native women in a nation with a long history of abusing its Indigenous population.
Faith Spotted Eagle, an activist organizing against the camp, told Indian Country Today Media Network that: “If a woman is brutalized by a pipeline worker, you are talking about a lifetime of impact.”
Is that price too high for cheap fuel? Many of us would say it is.
Photo credit: Lindsey G.