Research Project Takes O'Dowd '11 to South Dakota

 Fort Yates on the Lakota Sioux reservation in North Dakota.
Fort Yates on the Lakota Sioux reservation in North Dakota.

Caitlin O’Dowd ’11 has led a life largely driven by international travel. Because her father is involved in foreign affairs, she grew up overseas and has taken up residence in Jordan, Oman, Tunisia, Syria, Israel, and Egypt, where her parents currently live. But the effect of having been immersed in so many foreign cultures is like that of a slingshot – despite the heavy pull of foreign relations on her social philosophy and background, O’Dowd is catapulting in a different direction with her research project funded by the Kirkland Endowment. She hopes to concentrate on domestic affairs in what will eventually be a one-year post-graduate research experience.

O’Dowd’s project addresses issues of domestic violence and sexual assault among Native American communities. According to the 2007 Amnesty International Report, “Maze of Injustice – The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence,” 34.1 percent of Native American and Alaska Native women (more than one in three) will be raped at some point during their lifetime. Even more alarming, writes O’Dowd in her project proposal, is the knowledge that in “at least 86 percent of the reported cases, survivors report that the perpetrators are non-native men.” The United States Department of Justice has reported similar statistics, and has further posited that Native Americans are more likely to suffer from sexual crimes than any other race in the U.S.

O’Dowd appealed to the Kirkland Endowment for funding to visit The Pretty Bird Woman House, a shelter providing emergency advocacy support for women on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota who have been victims of such domestic violence. Her trip, which took place over fall break, familiarized O’Dowd with the reservation and the complexities of the jurisdiction process therein.

During her visit, O’Dowd drafted a proposal and budget plan for the project, as she plans to apply for the Samuel Huntington Public Service Award in January. This grant provides a graduating college senior with a $10,000 stipend in order to pursue one year of public or volunteer service either abroad or in the United States after which the recipient will typically proceed on to graduate school or a career. O’Dowd said she especially appreciates this award because it permits domestic travel, while prizes like the Fulbright or Watson provide funding for students who will leave the country to conduct their research.

The Pretty Bird Woman House was founded by Jackie Brown Otter after the brutal rape and murder of her sister, whose Lakota name means Pretty Bird Woman. Because Otter has since resigned as director, O’Dowd was able to speak with the new director as well as a few of the House’s residents in order to assess the living situation in reservation.

Of that situation, O’Dowd remarked, “It’s a very depressed town. There wasn’t much going on – literally a Boys & Girls Club of America and that was it.”

O’Dowd doesn’t think that the decrepit homes or lack of money will greatly deter her from making post-grad research plans there. Does she think it’s a livable place?

“To be honest, no,” she said. “But is that going to stop me? Probably not.”

O’Dowd first became interested in the topic of Native American social justice when her “Women, Law, Public Policy and Activism in the Contemporary United States” class (taught by The Elihu Root Peace Fund Associate Professor of Women's Studies Vivyan Adair) discussed feminist jurisprudence. That, combined with the topics covered in her “Myths of Native America” class (taught by Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Erich Fox Tree), set the tone of her project.

“I think that sometimes people romanticize the Native American experience and what it’s like to live on a reservation,” she said. “So I think that when you have people who aren’t Native American going into different areas and trying to work on these issues, it brings awareness to the issue.”

O’Dowd has plans to earn her Ph.D. in either gender studies or some form of politics after her post-grad study. As a social activist, she realizes her career path might not provide her with a healthy influx of money. “What am I going to be doing after college?” she asks herself. “Well, I’m not going to be making money – that’s the first thing that comes to mind.” But O’Dowd cares about domestic issues, and would rather see them resolved than worry about finances.

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