Earth Day turns 45 years old this week. Tia Nelson’s dad is rolling over in his grave.
By Mary Annette Pember
I arrive in Minneapolis in late March. These first warm spring days mean that the sugar bush camps can begin, a treasured time for Ojibwe families to work together tapping maple trees and spending long hours boiling the sap down to its exquisite syrup. The sweetness of this month, however, is belied by the reason for my visit: to learn more about the ways that American Indian women here are addressing the plague of sexual assault in their communities.
Indian women experience higher rates of sexual assault than any other ethnic or racial group in the United States. According to the 2006 “Maze of Injustice” report by Amnesty International, one in three American Indian women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Data gathered from Justice Department reports also shows that 86 percent of rapes reported by Indian women involve a perpetrator outside of their race. This is not typical. For example, in 2004, 65.1 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence against white women were white and 89.8 percent of perpetrators against African American women were African American.
For American Indian women, however, these facts are old news—really old news. It has been open season on American Indian women in this country for more than 200 years.
Indian women have been viewed as legitimate and deserving targets for sexual violence since the earliest days of colonialization, according to researchers such as Sarah Deer, professor at the William Mitchell College of Law. Raping Indian women has essentially been a right of conquest, notes Deer, a Muscogee Creek who served as a consultant on the “Maze of Injustice” report.
The actual rate of sexual assault for American Indian women is likely far greater than the data presented by the Justice Department or the “Maze of Injustice,” according to sexual assault advocates. “We’d like to know who those two other women are who haven’t been assaulted because we haven’t yet met them,” says Nicole Matthews of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.
Indian women often don’t report sexual assaults, according to Matthews and other advocates. They may be concerned about past arrest warrants, they may fear they could lose their children, or they may worry no one will believe them.
“Indian women don’t trust the system,” Matthews says.
Indian women understand that reporting rape doesn’t often result in prosecution so they choose simply not to subject themselves to additional trauma, notes Pauline Musgrove, executive director of the Spirits of Hope Coalition, in the Amnesty report. According to an extensive three-year study of the Duluth Police Department conducted by Mending the Sacred Hoop and the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, none of the forty-plus cases of sexual assault reported by American Indian women went to prosecution. Surprised by their findings, the authors continued their research back to 2004 and were unable to find any prosecutions of sexual assault for American Indian victims. The audit was a wake-up call for Duluth authorities such as Leslie Beiers, assistant St. Louis county attorney, who admitted to an initial reaction of defensiveness and guilt. After hearing details of Indian women’s experience with the “system,” however, she and John Beyer, deputy chief of Duluth police, have promised to make substantive changes in how their departments treat American Indian sexual assault victims.
The Justice Department recently released statistics for the first time indicating that U.S. attorneys had declined to prosecute 47 percent of all cases in Indian Country referred to them in 2009. In some of the cases, officials cited jurisdictional problems. The Obama Administration has taken action in response to this news with landmark financial support, increasing funding for programs that work with tribal courts and law enforcement by nearly $180 million in fiscal year 2011. This represents a 250 percent increase over the past two years for such programming.
In July, Congress finally passed a bill to give greater local control to Native American tribal authorities to deal with crimes on reservations, including sexual violence against women. Amnesty International hailed the bill as a groundbreaking piece of legislation that tackles the complex jurisdictional maze that allows violent crime against American Indians to continue unabated.
Far more insidious than the failure of federal, state, and tribal authorities to protect Indian women and prosecute perpetrators is the shocking climate of resignation, even acceptance, among many Indian people toward sexual assault.
“There is an awful lot of shame about being assaulted for Indian women. We don’t talk about it, even to each other,” says Peggy Roy, Ojibwe, of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.
During a roundtable community discussion convened by the resource center, an elder from the Leech Lake Ojibwe reservation recalled warnings that began in early childhood for girls: “Our mothers told us, if you see a group of white guys, hide in the bushes. If they see you, they’ll rape you.” The elder, who wished to remain anonymous, noted that growing up in such an environment creates the sense that rape is inevitable and that Indian women are simply vessels to be used by others. “What a terrible thing it is to raise our daughters to be afraid,” she said.
At another meeting, this one convened to discuss a spate of recent gang rapes in the local Phillips neighborhood, a seventy-year-old Ojibwe woman, whom I call C., suddenly stood up.
“I was raped right here in this neighborhood when I was a young girl,” she said in a loud, clear voice.
In a private interview, C. related that she was lured away from a local bar by a white man who repeatedly assaulted her in his car. Pretending to go along with the assault, she was eventually able to escape. Barefoot and her clothes torn, she ran into a busy street and flagged down a motorist who drove her home.
“I used to really like to dance before that happened; it cured me of that,” she recalls. Ashamed of being in a bar, C. never reported the attack and, indeed, had never spoken of the assault until the community meeting more than fifty years later.
In response to the question of why now, she said, “I guess I finally felt safe enough to talk about it.”
This normalization of sexual assault is a facet of historical trauma, according to mental health researchers such as Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a professor of social work at Columbia University. She describes a deep community trauma and grief that has resulted from generations of hurt and pain experienced in the Indian community at the hands of the government.
Brave Heart has developed a theory about intergenerational massive group trauma, an Indian-specific version of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). The trauma manifests itself in self-destructive behavior, such as substance abuse, as well as depression, suicidal thoughts and gestures, anger, anxiety, low self-esteem, and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions.
Brave Heart recommends the use of traditional ceremonies and practices to bring about a “healthy resolution of grief.”
So does Sharyl Whitehawk, Ojibwe, of the Mending the Sacred Hoop program in Minneapolis. Whitehawk says advocates around the country report that their clients most often request help with healing through traditional ceremony.
Fortunately, Indian women have maintained their connection to the Earth and to their culture in spite of everything that has happened to them, according to Cristine Davidson of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.
“We have always had that essential power. This is what we must tap into to make ourselves healthy again,” she declares.
Davidson speaks from personal experience. A victim of rape, she found herself crippled by the lasting trauma for years. It was only after confronting the trauma and asking for help from other Indian women and elders that she has found peace.
I’ve come to Minnesota to attend a full moon ceremony that is being offered by an ad hoc group of advocates to help women in the healing process. Before the ceremony, I visit a spiritual leader from my lodge who lives in the area. She cautions me that I must first work on healing myself before working on this story. Presciently, she predicts I will soon hit a wall in my project that will challenge me deeply.
The next day I learn that the full moon ceremony has been canceled due to a family emergency for the elder who was to have led the event. In the days that follow I find myself face to face with my personal demons and begin the journey of confronting the long-buried trauma of my own sexual assaults. No longer an observer, I become a participant when my own people later invite me to a traditional Ojibwe sweat lodge.
As I enter the dark door to the lodge, hands and knees on the ground, I surrender my professional journalistic control. I am struck that this assignment is no longer simply about the history and data surrounding the rates of sexual assault for Indian women; it has become deeply personal. I begin to tremble.
I settle onto the cool tamped earth of the sweat lodge as I begin my own journey. The quiet timeless waiting of ceremony washes over me, and my mind opens. I think of my mother and her life of unresolved pain from assaults that she never dared to uncover. I think also of my twelve-year-old daughter, Rosa. Will the cycle poison her as well? With a start I realize that, like my mother, I too, have accepted rape as inevitable. Like her, I have built a cage around my heart and grown the same hard-boiled exterior with which to face the world. Rosa, however, has given me the resolve to begin to deconstruct this cycle and take a hard look at what has gone into creating a world in which Indian women expect to be raped.
My mind continues along this line as heated stones are passed into the pit of the lodge. At last, the door is closed; darkness envelops us and we begin.
The lodge is hotter and more charged than any I have known. I hear only the drum and the songs; I am the drum, the songs, the heat, and this spot of earth on which I sit.
My mouth begins to tell the stories of my pain into the womb-like safety of this darkness.
The pain of these events has waited for me for a long time, packed away for more than thirty-five years, way back in the closet behind the old paint cans of my psyche. Although I thought I buried these memories for my emotional survival, their pain has emerged in differing forms, including crippling fear and anger that have fueled years of self-medication in the form of alcohol, drugs, excessive work, and avoidance of human attachment. At times, the fear allowed me to feel safe enough to sleep only if locked in a bedroom with a loaded gun.
Beginning my story is like gutting a deer carcass, and so I plunge my knife deep. Opening the body, I see the rapes lodged there in the gore where they have always been, waiting for me.
I have been raped several times, all before the age of sixteen. I have to pause for some time to enumerate them. I am able to remember seven rapes. Six assailants were white; one was African American. A white neighbor boy also repeatedly sexually molested me beginning at the age of four.
My introduction to intercourse consisted of rape at the age of thirteen at a drunken house party in the small Wisconsin town of my youth. There were quite a number of older white boys and young men at the party who made much of my being American Indian. “Oh, hey, she’s Indian, you know,” someone said. Several men laughed loudly at the remark; it seemed to be an enormously funny secretly shared joke. It was only later that I came to know the punch line. For the white men of my town, Indian women were sexually available and could be raped with impunity.
New to drinking, I got drunk quickly. My junior high girlfriends seemed nowhere to be found as I allowed a man to lead me to his basement apartment. Before I knew it, he had me on the lower half of a bunk bed, pulling my jeans down and forcing my legs apart. I still remember the horrible quality of his closeness. I really felt as though I might die more from the terrible sense of violation than the pain. Before that time I had had no idea of how deeply I could be wounded. Afterward when I tried to get up, his roommate jumped down from the top bunk, unzipping his pants on the way. It’s the last thing I remember. If I ever knew the names of these white men, I have forgotten long ago. I did not report the rape to the police, not even sure in my thirteen-year-old mind that it was a crime. I was afraid of the police who I knew would make more of my underage drinking and my race than the rape.
Even at age thirteen, I knew the police were not there to help Indian people; my experience was that the police put Indians in jail. I recall the names of two other perpetrators from my town, George and Gary. I was intoxicated when Gary raped me, with his friends nearby, urging him on, and laughing. Right afterward, they said: “Go ahead and piss on her!” I honestly don’t remember if he did. There was always a lot of laughter by the white men who raped me. They were having a marvelous time; they were with their friends, getting drunk and banging an Indian chick. I developed a great talent of disconnecting myself. I would envision unplugging a thousand little electrical plugs inside my body and drawing deeply inward. The other rapes took place in California when I lived on the streets in Hollywood and Oakland, engaging in all manner of risky behavior. The man in Hollywood was the friend of a friend of a friend with whom I found myself unexpectedly alone one day. He slipped me a near-lethal dose of sedatives before raping me. I recall feeling only a passing interest in the events that seemed to be happening to another girl. He put me in the hallway of the apartment building afterward, where some people found me and kept me awake until the drugs wore off. The African American man who raped me in an abandoned apartment in Oakland held a linoleum knife to my throat and demanded I kiss him.
I have told no one until now, nearly forty years later, about my own trauma. Only now, in the safety of a life that includes deep involvement with traditional Ojibwe spirituality and membership in a recovery fellowship have I felt secure enough to face the memories.
The ceremony seems to last forever. The unrelenting heat pushes my body down flat onto the earth. I seek the thin layer of fresh air that lives on the floor of the lodge. My lips brush the earth as I suck in small breaths of cool oxygen. My very being seems to become distilled into this creature on the ground seeking life. Suddenly the door is opened, as quickly as it had been closed, and we emerge like newborns into the chill of night air. Wet and covered in dirt, I look up at the sky where the moon shines down on us like a searchlight. I seem to be seeing it for the first time.
Exhausted, I fumble for my glasses and wobble on shaky legs toward the glowing warmth of the house where I feast gratefully with the others. I eat a manomin (wild rice) dish prepared by my cousin that is sweetened with a bit of this year’s maple syrup. The first sweetness on my tongue releases a flood of pleasing childhood memories, so warm and rich, it creates a sanctuary.
Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Ojibwe, is an indepen- dent journalist whose work focuses on American Indian issues.