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Briggs: Ending the cycle of shame

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In the painting, the two girls hold hands.

The painting, by Roxanne Chinook, an artist from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, hangs in Oregon's Jefferson County Library.

Chinook still knows the girls who she photographed years ago at a pow wow.

Yet through the power of her paint brush, Chinook transformed the children on the canvas into herself at the age when the abuse began. That was a year before she told about her grandfather's molestation of herself, the rape of her childhood.

Now in her early 50s, Chinook teaches women on the Tulalip Tribes reservation near Seattle about the patterns of abuse that can trap women, particularly Indian women.

The Tulalip are one of growing number of tribes taking stands against domestic violence through education and law enforcement. At a satellite campus of Northwest Indian College, the slight, stylish woman opens a weekday class unsure who will attend.

Four social workers from the Snohomish County Center for Battered Women show up, inspired by a training Chinook had given. About 20 minutes into the class, some tribal women appear tentatively at the door. Chinook welcomes them in her warm, gravely voice.

Soon the formal statistics - one in three Indian women is raped in her lifetime, compared with one in five other women - give way to a time-honored style of Native teaching: truth-telling mixed almost improbably with an Indian humor.

''We were hippie girls,'' Chinook says of her young adult years spent in Portland, Ore. ''You know, 'Peace, love, groovy. What's your sign? Spare change?'''

Drinking heavily became Chinook's medicine, masking the trauma of abuse by her white grandfather and a date rape at age 19 that took her virginity.

Chinook would be raped a total of 13 times between the ages of 19 and 28. Four were gang rapes, something like what actress Jody Foster depicts in the 1988 movie, ''The Accused.'' Like Foster in the movie, Chinook was heavily intoxicated, sometimes passed out.

''It's only recently that I've been able to disclose how many times I've been raped,'' Chinook wrote in a biographical article. ''My Spirit Lives'' was published in the Native Women and State Violence edition of ''Social Justice, A Journal of Crime Conflict & World Order'' (Vol. 31, No. 4 [2004]: 31 - 39).

Sharing these details, she explains, ''not only takes away the power of the rapists, it also alleviates some of the shame.''

With the precision of a demographer, Chinook lists the ethnicities of the rapists: one Native, one Hawaiian, four black and the rest white. Like most Native women, most of her abusers were not Native.

Her subconscious tells a different story.

In a dream, they stand by a roadside leering at her as she rides slowly by in a car.

Three rapes occurred in Madras, Ore., the border town to Warm Springs. It was there in 1981 that Chinook for the first and last time sought police help in catching the rapist. At the Jefferson County Sheriff Department, a white deputy leaned over to her and said, ''Come on, he has a wife and children at home.''

Chinook walked out carrying her torn bra, beaded belt and the weight of shame borne by Native women since the colonization of America began.

She carried her shame to the bar.

It would follow her through her marriages and the births of her three daughters. It lingered while she earned bachelor's and master's degrees, keeping a 4.0 average most of the time. She held important jobs in the arts and social work. Still, the fear that she describes feeling in her cells would reappear frequently.

She tells her class at Tulalip that it only takes one threatening incident for an abusive partner to establish his power in a relationship. In the class there are nods of understanding, flickers of memories passing through women's eyes.

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Like many domestic violence victims, she tried to back out of litigation, but the local district attorney prosecuted anyway. Now she knows that domestic violence adjudications are important for victims. With a DV conviction on record, abusers have less chance of getting custody of children.

For eight years, Chinook achieved sobriety before the trauma of past rapes resurfaced, triggering flashbacks. She relapsed, and lost custody of her daughters.

On March 6, 1997, after taking a combination of alcohol, cocaine and crank, she allowed strange men to shoot her up with heroin. She overdosed. The paramedics later said they found her dead, lying face-down, on the street.

In a drawing, she shows how her body looked from the peaceful bubble of white light that held her in the air. Already blue and cold, the paramedics were ready to declare the body DOA when they started defibrillation.

Roxanne shot back into her body through the top of her head - whoosh.

The paramedic jumped.

''I believe my Creator sent me back to put an end to the cycle of abuse in my life, in my children's lives and in their children's lives,'' she said.

Around that time, she remembers going to see her cousin Richard Macy at his hamburger restaurant because she had bounced a check. She rolled up her sleeves, revealing needle bruises on her unnaturally skinny arms. The words he said would change her life.

''Your heart has been broken many times,'' he said. ''The only way to mend a broken heart is with time. However, your spirit has been broken many times. The only way to heal a broken spirit is to surround yourself with people who love you.''

Her tribe sent her to treatment in August 1997. Eleven years ago, that facility sent her to a program in Bellingham, Wash., where she finally began receiving the care that she needed. ''I surrounded myself with people who loved me,'' she said. They include her sister, who lives in Atlanta.

Soon she began to teach at Northwest Indian College. Her youngest daughter returned to her custody and her oldest daughter moved near her. In 2007, she came to work for the Tulalip Tribes.

Chinook intends to teach for as long as it takes for everyone to learn that violence against women is wrong.

But telling her truth comes with some embarrassing moments for Chinook. At a conference, where she spoke, a young white woman thanked her for being so ''honest about your promiscuity.''

Chinook was raped, not promiscuous. Because of her sexual abuse, Chinook was afraid of sex. But it's a distinction that our colonized culture struggles to understand.

I found myself stumbling over words during my interview with her, saying, ''You were raped because you were drunk?''

''No,'' she explained. ''I was drunk because I'd been raped.''

Our ''blame the victim'' philosophy seems hard-wired into our very words. Our English words come from the same culture that used the rape and intimidation of our women as a strategy of war. But Chinook said, ''I don't want any judging for how people chose to survive.''

Through her art, Chinook challenges the stereotypes. In a photo, Chinook poses as she would have looked slumped over a table in a bar. The caption reads, ''Does this woman deserve to be raped?'' Another shows Chinook hitchhiking.

''Does this woman deserve to be raped?''

All Indian nations would do well to hire truth-tellers, such as Chinook, to fight violence against Indian women through teaching.

Kara Briggs is the co-director of the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative and a columnist for Indian Country Today. A longtime journalist, she lives in Washington state. E-mail her at