The Victoria Schuck Award is given annually for the best book published on women and politics.
The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America by Sarah Deer ( University of Minnesota Press)
This path-breaking book changes the women and politics field. It begins with the apparently simple question of why the rate of rape for Native girls and women is so much higher than for their non-Native counterparts but unlike other criminal acts occurs largely between the races. Deer maintains that America’s post-colonial governments, her focus, both fail to protect Native girls and women but also largely prevent tribal courts from protecting them. Deer’s work combines rich empirical detail, including searing personal testimonies, with forensic argument, and its thesis strikes at heart of the intersection of gender, race, and politics. She also carefully addresses her own positionality and evidence, that she discusses thoughtfully and convincingly. While feminists have for decades recognized and argued that rape is about power, Deer goes further by showing how it is enmeshed with colonialism and governance. In the context of Native American women’s lives, she writes: ‘the crisis of rape in tribal communities is inextricably linked to the way in which the United States developed and sustained a legal system that has usurped the sovereign authority of tribal nations” (xiv). Despite her focus on the US and its history, Deer’s insights also apply to the many other settler societies in which colonialism oppressed and exploited Indigenous peoples.
Deer criticizes the common portrayal of rape as an act between individuals or as a simple tool of patriarchy, arguing that the high rates of rape and the impunity for rapists is a political issue that emanates from settler colonialism, and a manifestation of racism exacerbated by neo-colonial governments’ willingness to tolerate both. Deer’s goal is to restore sovereignty to Indian nations so that tribal courts regain their power to provide justice to Native women and girls. She identifies in particular the US Supreme Court‘s decision in Oliphant v Squamish Indian Tribe (1978) that denied tribal courts the right to prosecute non-Natives accused of rape. This links the very high levels of impunity regarding the rape of Native women over centuries to the settler state’s continuing complicity with neo-colonialism. Deer also challenges the frequent use of the metaphor of rape as an epidemic as inappropriate since ‘rape is a crime against humanity’ (x). This quote illuminates her insights: ‘Imagine living in a world in which almost every woman you know has been raped…in which generations of women and their ancestors have been raped. Now imagine that not a single rapist has been prosecuted for these crimes’ (p.12).
Deer’s complex argument unfolds in layers, with clarity, thoughtfulness, and deep respect for the pain at the heart of her story. The brutal invasion, genocide, and destruction of Native lives, cultures, traditions, and governments at the heart of the U.S. founding continues to haunt surviving Native Americans, with rape as a manifest and enduring symptom. Since ‘all other challenges faced by tribal nations are linked to the history and trauma of rape’ (xv), Deer insists that ending rape should be the top priority for both Native and post-colonial governments. The ‘women and politics’ field will be profoundly challenged by Deer’s remarkable book and her contention that rape must be understood as an enduring violence that spans many generations and an injustice that echoes down the centuries as part of an unresolved trauma of colonization.
Special thanks to Jill Vickers, Shauna Shames, and Fiona Mackay.