Sarah Deer wrote most of her first critical work, Maze of Injustice, from her bed.
That’s because Deer, at age 33, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“When you’re sick like that, you have a lot of time to think,” says Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma who earned a bachelor’s in philosophy and women’s studies in 1995 and a law degree from KU in 1999. “One of the things I thought about was — I want to do something a little different. I want to share my knowledge. I want to write more.”
At the time Deer worked for the Tribal Law and Policy Institute (TLPI). Deer’s experiences at KU had already made her realize that more needed to be done to protect the lives of survivors of physical and sexual assault. So when Amnesty International approached TLPI about exploring human rights issues related to Indian reservations, Deer found her subject.
Over the next two years — and throughout her cancer treatments — Deer and her mentor, Bonnie Clairmont, began to tell the stories of sexual violence on tribal land, stories that would bring faces to the grim statistics.
“I just knew the story needed to be told,” she says. “The statistics tell us that Native women are raped at a higher rate than any other group in the United States. In some communities, Native mothers talk about preparing their daughters for the inevitable — that they will be raped. It’s not acceptable.”
The resulting report — Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA — was published in 2007.
“The report came out while I was still in the midst of this cancer battle,” Deer explains. “Within a few hours after we released that report, senators and their staffers started calling. I thought, ‘Oh, this is finally going to change things.’”
The report spurred the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. The laws, signed by President Barack Obama, both grant greater power to tribal courts in criminal cases.
“A lot of people talk about healing for people who have been sexually assaulted, but I like the word justice better,” Deer says. “Native women deserve justice. And as a lawyer, that’s kind of my job. So when I think about what a survivor needs, I think, first and foremost, about finding justice.”
Deer received a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship — the “genius grant” — to continue her advocacy. Her new book, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America, will be published in October.
She still volunteers at TLPI and teaches at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Deer marked her five-year post-diagnosis date in 2011. She has no evidence of disease.
Read more about Deer’s story.