By Ting-Chia Kan
Native students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are dedicated to addressing the prevalence of sexual violence against indigenous women campus.
Native women had been much more likely to face sexual violence while they were studying in UW-Madison. According to the UW American Association of Universities Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Assault Climate Survey conducted in 2015, 46.2 percent of female native undergraduates experienced sexual violence on campus, and the number was much higher than the average — 27.6 percent.
“That’s very alarming,” said Collin Ludwig, the external relation officer of the native student organization Wunk Sheek and a member of Red Cliff tribe. “People should know about the issue already, and it should be covered on the news station everywhere because it’s such a big disparity between the rate of which native women are assaulted versus other groups.”
After the results of the climate survey came out in early 2016, the University Health Services responded to it immediately. The violence prevention team had expanded the original online program aiming to educate incoming students about sexual violence, and the survivor services increased the number of staff from one to three.
However the efforts UHS had made, their catering for native students seemed to be not enough.
On a panel held by native students, a father talked about his daughter who sought assistance from UHS to recover from the trauma of being sexually assaulted and her brother’s death. She missed two appointments with UHS and was no longer able to access to the resources. She committed suicide later, reported by The Badger Herald.
“The university failed her in that situation,” said Skenandore, the former external relation of Wunk Sheek and a member of Oneida and Bad River tribes. “They didn’t provide the help she needed, especially on the experiences being assaulted.”
After hearing about the student’s death, Ludwig said he would no longer trust UHS until they acknowledge their mistake and improve the accessibility of the resources.
“It can happen to any one of my friends, anyone I am close to,” Ludwig said. “Our community is so small, we all know each other. When something happens to someone, it affects all of us.”
In light of the sexual violence towards Indigenous people, Ludwig urged UHS to take actions.
“Help us more,” Ludwig said. “Take us account, especially native woman, because they took more stuff than anyone else.”
One of the significant factors causing the prevalence of violence was the hypersexualization of Indigenous women — which placed them at a higher risk of sexual violence.
Mariah Skenandore, from Oneida and Ojibwe Bad River, said when people knew she was native, people often said “that’s sexy, that’s hot,” and some people, usually white males, would start touching her.
“The way that we are portrayed in media further hypersexualize us which causes people to have this notion that we are hyper-sexual beings, which make them want to touch us and take advantages usually,” Skenandore said.
Stereotypes in the media can also be harmful. For instance, Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, was kidnapped by the invading European, and the history was different from the romantic story showed by the Disney movie.
Besides the inaccurate history in the movie, it was harmful as well in a way that it presented Pocahontas with little clothing which further sexualized Indigenous women, Ludwig said.
Skenandore said people often called her Pocahontas when knowing her native identity.
“It’s basically like a slur,” Skenandore said. “It’s very depressing when people call me that. That’s not cute, it doesn’t make me feel cute, it makes me feel violated.”
The same harm occurred from the Halloween customs. Skenandore said when people dressed up like “sexy Indian princesses” was not only racist but sexualizing native women.
“They were being portrayed […] not being clothed as much, showing a lot of skin, and is very hypersexualized,” Ludwig said. “And men outside of the community see that as ‘oh, they are asking for that’ which was really harmful.”
In addition to sexual violence, other types of violence such as kidnapping and murdering made the environment more unfriendly towards Indigenous women. Skenandore, who had been voicing for Indigenous people on campus, said the identity of being a female advocate for her community itself made her feel unsafe.
“I feel scared sometimes when walking around campus,” Skenandore said. She often received threatening messages online such as ‘you’re going to be the next missing or murdered indigenous woman.’
The violence was inherent from the dominant culture towards the Indigenous population.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 96 percent of cases in which native women were sexually assaulted were done by non-native.
Alex Nelson, the UHS Violence Prevention Specialist, said statistics about the high rate of non-native perpetrators and the fact of the prevalent sexual violence were devastating, but not surprising.
“It is not surprising for me working in this field knowing how violence is enacted against people differently than other people,” Nelson said. “Violence in its nature is a tool used to take away other person’s power to exert their power over another person or persons, and you know that violence has been used as a white supremacy tactic in the United States.”
The sentiment of white supremacy was not new on the UW campus. After the AAU results came out in 2016, a ceremony was held at the Dejope residence hall aiming to spread the awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence against native students and to heal the victims. But the outcome wasn’t pleasant to the natives when a Ho-Chunk elder was singing traditional songs, a group of students disrupted the ceremony by shouting stereotypical “war cry.”
“This is really disrespectful to native women,” Skenandore said. “The whole experience was supposed to be healing for them, but actually it ended up being more traumatic.”
The disruption was upset, but how the UW-Madison addressed the incidents had even more disappointed Indigenous students.
“After that, the university didn’t really do anything,” Skenandore said. “They didn’t help with the healing of native women, they just made those two students volunteer at the Powwow for the punishment.”
Ludwig also criticized the university failed to make enough efforts to prevent the hatred against the native community.
“They don’t help us too much,” Ludwig said. “They just used us as a diversity statistic.”
To improve the inherent unwelcoming climate on campus for Indigenous students would be a difficult task, but there were some efforts the university could make.
“Add more resources for native women specifically […] in terms of violence prevention, survivor services, like culturally tailored programs for native women and two-spirit folks that need the help […] to get the help they need,” Ludwig said.
Skenandore said the lack of representation in UHS was part the issue because it would be difficult for a non-native to understand what the native students had gone through. Furthermore, she said the UHS’s counseling program might be helpful for some people, but for native students, what they need was other healing methods.
“Needs are being made, but that’s dominant group’s needs,” Skenandore said. “If I were able to access the ceremony and my tradition…that will be reconciliation, and that will be healing, and that will be helpful for native students.”
In responding to the issue, Nelson said they would be continually looking at assisting the native students.
“We know that because they experience violence in this disproportionate rate, Nelson said. “That means that our services need to be able to be responsive to them in ways they are unique to their needs. So that is the continually evolving process.”
While UHS had not yet developed a concrete plan, Wunk Sheek had started seeking solutions to the issue. Ludwig said the organization would expect a series of public workshops next year in which they would highlight the disparities and sexual violence towards the native woman.
Does the University of Wisconsin-Madison respect Indigenous students?
Indigenous students felt the University of Wisconsin-Madison does not respect them enough.
UW-Madison was built on Ho-Chunk land. Therefore, Skenandore wished people can respect the native culture more.
“Know your place, that’s important, know your place, because ultimately if you’re here then your place is on native land, you best to respect the culture that was here before you,” Skenandore said.
However, Ludwig reminded that it’s important for the non-native population to learn about native, but the information should directly from them rather than from someone else.
“Don’t get out your biases from popular media that portray us negatively and hyper-sexually,” Ludwig said. “Learn more about us from us, not from Hollywood or government; let us tell you about us. Let your knowledge of native people come from the sources, not from other people.”
There were about 300 self-reported native undergraduates on campus, but Skenandore said they were invisible. In her first year came to UW-Madison, she went to the student organization fair and people there told her there weren’t any native student organization on campus.
“Even though there’s like seven of them,” Skenandore said. “We are just not that visible on campus, which is unfortunate.”
Skenandore said the university could be doing more such as recruiting native students, stopping moving them around because Wunk Sheek were told in 2020 they would have to move out from AISCC where used to meet and hold events and creating a more welcome and safe environment for them.