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MacArthur 'genius grant' winner welcomes boost to work on Native American domestic violence

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Sarah Deer
William Mitchell College of Law professor Sarah Deer.
Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

A local legal scholar who advocates for Native American women living on reservations is a recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

Sarah Deer is a law professor at the William Mitchell College of law in St. Paul, and the co-director of the school's Indian Law clinic. Current laws aren't sufficient to protect American Indian women from sexual and domestic violence, she said in the wake of news about her award.

"At the end of the day, if the system can't protect its own people it can become an open season for predators," Deer said. "And I think it's really what has happened due to the very complicated framework of laws on Indian reservations."

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Each of the 21 genius grant recipients received $625,000. It's an eclectic group that also includes scientists, mathematicians, historians, a cartoonist and a composer whose work involves topics that have dominated the news in the past year. Deer says she's still considering her options, but will likely use the money to continue her advocacy.

Deer met with women who simply stopped reporting on attacks because their tribal governments had been stripped of the authority to investigate and because federal authorities were often unwilling to do so, she said. The foundation pointed to her instrumental role in reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act by Congress in 2013 that restored some of those abilities to tribes.

"I'm thinking about a book project that might allow me to elevate the voices of the survivors," Deer said. "And have that as part of the national dialogue."

Deer says she learned about her award two weeks ago, but had to keep it secret until Wednesday's announcement.

The awards, given annually since 1981, are doled out over a five-year period. This year's class brings the number of recipients to more than 900. Shrouded in secrecy, the selection process doesn't involve applications. Instead, anonymous groups make nominations and recommendations to the foundation's board of directors.

Most winners are not widely known outside their fields, but the list has over the years included such writers as Susan Sontag and Karen Russell and filmmaker John Sayles.

The Associated Press contributed to this report