In November, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month. While this represents an incredible opportunity to discuss the many contributions made by Native Americans and Native Alaskans, it also gives us a chance to talk about how far our country has to go in treating Indigenous people equally. In particular, Native women in the United States face particularly high levels of inequality that must be addressed.
Last week, we opened up a conversation about the rate of sexual and domestic violence against Native American and Native Alaskan women in the United States. The statistics are stunning:
Native women are murdered at rates that are 10 times the national average.
Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than non-Native women.
More than 4 in 5 Native women have suffered physical violence.
Murder is the 3rd leading cause of death among Native women.
The issues of violence and abuse that face Native women are part of a broader, more systemic problem of inequality.
First, Native women are woefully underpaid, compared to both white men and even to other women. This year, equal pay day for Native American women fell on September 23. Equal pay day is a concept that illustrates the gap between men and women’s wages. It shows how far into the year women must work — on top of the previous 12 months — in order to earn what men earned in the previous year. Because women earn less (on average) than men, they typically must work longer for the same amount of pay. In 2019, the equal pay day for women was April 2 — yet because women of color are generally paid far less than white women, their “equal pay day” is usually much later in the year.
Native women must work until September 23 before they earn the same amount that white men did in the previous year. In the United States, Native women only make 58 cents for every dollar that white men in similar positions earn. The only group that earns less each year is Latinx women, who will not reach equal pay day until November 20, 2019.
Equal pay is an important issue, as it affects the ability of Native women to access health care, education, job training and child care. Crucially, it also impacts the ability of Native women to be financially secure and independent. Without this type of independence, Native women are less likely to be able to escape violence in their homes.
Nationwide, Native youth — young women and men alike — have some of the lowest graduation rates in the country. On average, less than 50% of Native students graduate each year in the states with the highest percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native students. These low rates of high school graduation contribute to the pay gap that persists for Native American women in the United States.
Politically, Native American women have made gains — but the recency of those achievements highlights how much work there is to do. While women were granted the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, the Indian Citizenship Act was not passed until 1924 — giving Native Americans full citizenship. Still, many states denied Native Americans the right to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In 2018, the first two Native American women were elected to Congress.
These types of inequalities — lack of political power, unequal access to education, and the wage gap — all contribute to the epidemic of sexual assault, domestic violence and other types of crime against Native American and Alaska Native women. By advocating for change, we can make a difference — both in November and throughout the year.