Recalibrating Risk Assessment for Indigenous Women
Risk assessment is a ubiquitous tool to understand the impacts of investment. What past assessment tools have lacked, however, is a complete understanding of Indigenous women’s experiences of life in their communities. As we craft a new lens toward affecting a just transition for all, investors have an opportunity to recalibrate these tools to more aptly account for Indigenous women’s economic and social wellbeing. This necessarily includes a focus on the impacts of violence against Indigenous women in Indian Country.
In the spirit of recalibration, I’d like to start with a question. It’s about expectations. When you call 911, what happens next?
Likely, the call will be answered by a trained operator, who will then deploy first responders to your exact location in a matter of minutes. The expectation of a rapid and expert response is ingrained from an early age in many of our worldviews and the expectation itself provides a measure of safety and assurance.
How does this apply to investing? Because when you invest in a project in Indian Country, or in Indigenous communities worldwide, the women and children in those communities do not have that same experience, nor do they have the same expectation of a safe response.
The set of assumptions they carry are different. And, economic development and investment, as they have proceeded historically, only confirm their experience of violence and community instability.
Moving forward, investors have a critical role in either endorsing or dispelling this reality for Indigenous women and children.
To start, Native women and children do not have an expectation of basic safety and security in many parts of Indian Country. Murder is the third-leading cause of death of American Indian and Alaska Native women and, in some places in the United States, the rates of violence on the reservations can be ten times higher than the national average. Studies show that four out of five Native women are affected by violence in their lifetime. This reality has resulted in an epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) throughout North America. In 2016, 5,712 cases of MMIWG were reported to the National Crime Information Center.
Part of the reason for the outsized rates of violence against Indigenous women is that tribes do not have the authority to hold non-Native perpetrators accountable for their crimes in Indian Country. Federal, state and tribal authorities have distinct responsibilities that shift depending on the case. So, when Native women call 911 or file a missing persons report, the first questions aren’t about safety but rather to determine whether there will be a response deployed at all.
For these reasons, criminal investigations in Indian Country are slow to start, if they begin, and they rarely result in prosecution. Of the thousands of MMIW cases logged in 2016, only 116 cases were registered in the US Department of Justice’s missing persons database. Violence against Indigenous women and children occurs with seeming impunity. Status quo, as it has been created through history and policy, is that no one is on the other line answering their call for help.
This experience is magnified by extractive investment and development practices. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that, as a result of the oil development in the Bakken region, serious violence crime increased by 30 percent in the oil-producing counties but decreased by four percent in the non-oil producing counties. Increase of violent victimization by offenders who were strangers to the victim increased by 53 percent in the region. In short, development often brings violence to the area that would not otherwise be in that place.
The increase of violence and human trafficking attendant to development is particularly devastating because it contributes to the cumulative impact of violence in a community. It brings more violence, it brings more trauma, and, at the end of the day, Indigenous women are in their home left to sift through those impacts; often with little economic resources gained from the development inflicted on their community.
Thus, investors focused on implementing just transition must not only seek to do no harm by evading extractive industry development near Indigenous communities, but must seek out opportunities to do better by Indigenous women and children to harness their strengths in the short- and long-term.
The first step is to reframe consent as it is conceived in the sexual violence prevention field. The #MeToo movement has reinforced our shared social norm that individuals have the ultimate decisional authority over their body to give or to withhold consent as to any act in an intimate scenario. This definition at the individual level is exactly the same as consent at the collective level, where Indigenous Peoples have a collective right to give or to withhold consent as to the social, cultural, and economic issues that uniquely affect their wellbeing. This is Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). Believing and then acting in accordance with Indigenous Peoples’ experiences and expertise as to their social and environmental resources is exactly the way the transition into a new energy economy will be made just.
The second step is to back investments that are Indigenous-led or are driven by Indigenous leaders. Indigenous leaders are chosen representatives for their communities and are, therefore, in the best position to evaluate the ways that investment will affect the economic, social, and culture balance in those places. These leaders know what happens when someone calls 911. They know whether the local law enforcement infrastructure will be overwhelmed, or not. They know what giving or withholding consent means for their community. Investors that integrate that expertise into a social risk assessment are prioritizing long-term wellness over short-term profit.
This also means proactively investing in Indigenous and women-led opportunities. The platform set by Native Women Lead is a powerful example of the way that Native women are multiplying opportunities for economic empowerment and leadership for all Native women. Their analysis shows that Native American women are the critical drivers of Indigenous businesses that contribute $11 billion to the economy. Indigenous women have power and intention to shape culturally connected communities now and in the future. Invest accordingly.
Finally, investors must not assume that renewable energy development will be necessarily different than fossil fuel industry development. It is entirely possible that green energy investment will proceed without the FPIC of Indigenous leaders, or without consideration of the opportunities created or denied Indigenous women in the communities where the resources are located. In other words, renewable energy development could confirm expectations of violence. Again, recalibrating assessment to proactively consider Indigenous women’s needs and expertise will guard against repeating the extractive model of development.
These steps are difficult but turning away from these realities only begets more violence. The statistics demonstrate as much. Stepping into a new direction requires leadership to invite Indigenous participation into a process of risk assessment in a way that bridges worldviews to open new possibilities to community wellness. Investors can then leverage financial vehicles to accumulate benefits, not trauma, for generations.
Article by Kate R. Finn, a Staff Attorney for First Peoples Worldwide. She most recently served as the inaugural American Indian Law Program Fellow at the University of Colorado Law school where she worked directly with tribes and Native communities. Kate holds a J.D. and a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Colorado, and a B.A. from Princeton University.
Kate’s work encompasses building healthy Native communities through economic development initiatives and addressing violence against indigenous women. She has co-authored several articles on the intersection of resource development and violence against women in Native communities.
Prior to attending law school, Kate served as a Program Coordinator with the Denver Victim Services Network ensuring that victims of crime in the Denver metro area had access to a comprehensive network of services. She worked on the local level to connect service agencies and advocated at the federal level for adequate protections for victims of crime. Kate is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.