The Bureau of Indian Affairs Has a Serious Harassment Problem

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A disheartening report from High Country News shows that the widespread harassment running rampant through the Department of the Interior is especially bad at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Surveys conducted across the various agencies within the Department of the Interior show that while harassment is an issue for many of the agencies within, the Bureau of Indian Affairs—which is staffed primarily by Native Americans—experiences harassment on a much larger scale. According to a survey of BIA employees, over 40 percent reported being sexually or racially harassed in the past year; most of those surveyed did not report their harassment, which means that this number is a small sliver of the experiences that employees of this agency have faced.

From HCN:

As is often the case in federal agencies, the majority of victims of sexual harassment and assault were young women. The survey also shows tensions between non-Natives and Native Americans. Twenty percent of employees, mostly white or Hispanic, felt they had been racially harassed in the last 12 months. The only agency with higher racial harassment was the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, which also had the highest sexual harassment of all Interior Department agencies.

BIA offices are mostly isolated, leaving employees vulnerable. Most of the harassers in the reported cases were older males, and many of the respondents said that they were discouraged from reporting their harassment and if they did so, they faced retaliation from their colleagues and their harassers.

Harassment in the Native and Indigenous community is a particularly pervasive problem that, in this new era, still isn’t getting the light it deserves. A 2016 report from the Department of Justice showed that 56 percent of the Native women surveyed have been the victims of sexual violence. From HCN:

Most women reported they were concerned for their safety, and around half said they had experienced physical violence like pushing, shoving, or being beaten. Over 60 percent had experienced psychological aggression or coercive control. Experts say these record numbers still underestimate the number of women affected by violence, and the infrastructure for women to report and handle incidents is underfunded.


In a 2017 op-ed for the Washington Post, Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, highlighted the importance of including Native women in the conversation surrounding harassment and abuse—especially when it seems that the movement is pushing the stories of the marginalized to the wayside. “According to the Department of Justice, American Indians are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Indian women reports having been raped in her lifetime,” she wrote. “Yet they are never named in the national conversation about sexual violence.”

Lucy Simpson, member of the Navajo Nation and the executive director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center told that harassment of Native women is part of the legacy of this country’s ugly history.“The mentality of ownership over Native women’s bodies does not occur only from 9-5,” she said. “It is a dynamic that has grown in mainstream society since colonization. We see it almost every day with the sexualization of Native women in media.”


The key to fixing the issue, said Simpson, is to address it from within.

“Tribal courts tend to have a better understanding of what an indigenous victim of sexual harassment (and other forms of violence) is experiencing as an indigenous person,” she told Indianz, “given the fact that for many of us, our Native identify is at the core of our life experiences.”

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