Sunny Red Bear lost it all but is still standing tall. At 28, she has overcome years of sexual and emotional abuse by her adoptive white father, a subsequent court trial and guilty plea for her abuser, alcoholism, recovery and the birth of her son. It was only recently, however, that she moved beyond mere survival. She realized that in order to truly heal, she needed to call back her innocence, the spirit that had been chased away by her abuser and all that followed.
“I can’t really see you when I look at you,” a medicine man told Red Bear. ”You are blurry as though standing in a cloud.”
She and the medicine man agreed that she needed to go through the Lakota Calling Your Spirit Back ceremony, which she did in 2012.
“Everything fell together for me after the ceremony, “ Red Bear said. “I was led to the work I am currently doing, helping others to heal the way that I did.”
Red Bear recently began publicly sharing her story in writing and poetry, as well as presentations at workshops and conferences for abuse survivors. She describes her work as the pursuit of lost innocence and the solace its reclamation brings. Her goal is to offer hope, courage and direction to other survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
Red Bear’s story, although painful, is filled with unusual twists that seem to have destined her for something remarkable.
In an unexpected difference from most federal cases pursued in Indian country, the law worked in Red Bear’s favor in the prosecution of her childhood sexual abuser. (She has requested that only his initial G be used here to identify her adoptive father.)
Soon after the birth of her son in 2008, Red Bear began recalling the long repressed abuse she had suffered at the hands of her adoptive father. “It all came back to me in a flood of memories, like a bad dream,” she recalled.
After working up the courage to share her memories with her two adoptive sisters, G.’s biological daughters, she was amazed to find that they too had been experiencing painful recollections of their father’s abuse.
“My older sister started piecing her memories of abuse together around the same time,” Red Bear said. “It was so validating to hear them say that they too did not feel safe in our home growing up.”
Although several women joined Red Bear and her sisters after they came forward to publicly accuse G in 2008, the South Dakota statute of limitations for the prosecution of sexual abuse of children had elapsed. However, G, although non-Indian, and his family lived on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation when he began abusing Red Bear in 1995, so he was under federal jurisdiction because Indian reservations are subject to federal laws for all residents. There is no federal statute of limitations for sexual assault or abuse of a child.
Red Bear became the only hope of justice for G.’s many victims. “My sisters encouraged me to stand up. They said, “There are all these women who won’t get any justice without you,” Red Bear recalled.
Since the South Dakota state statute of limitations of three years for prosecution of sex abuse had elapsed for the crimes G. committed against the non-Native women, he was only liable in federal court for the abuse he committed against Red Bear.
G’s other victims claimed he had sexually molested them as children too. G. was a well-known and respected educator who also served as a girl’s basketball coach and deacon of the Baptist church, all providing him with access to children.
“It was hard at first. He had me so brainwashed! I didn’t want my dad to go to jail,” she said.
All at once, however, a light came on for her. “It broke for me, I realized that they were right; I had to tell my story,” she said.
Red Bear was overwhelmed by the support she received from family, friends and members of the community. “My adoptive mother, family, members of our church and advocates for the sexually assaulted showed up in court to support me,” Red Bear recalled.
Eleven women shared their stories of abuse at G.’s hands during the court proceedings.
In 2008, G. was charged in federal court only with the abuse of Red Bear. He pled guilty for one count each of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and sexual contact of a child under the age of 12. (The crimes were committed in 1994 and 1995 when Red Bear was 5 and 6 years old). He was sentenced to 36 months in prison; fined $36,000 and must now register as a sex offender. G. has served his sentence and is living as a free man.
Red Bear does not feel, however, that the judicial system provided true justice for her and the others. “The judge kept asking me if I forgave my father. I said yes but that doesn’t make his actions any less of a crime,” she said.
“G. was still able to make others feel sorry for him. He complained in court about losing everything because of the charges. The judge cut the fine in half,” she said.
Although G. has apologized to Red Bear, she believes his remorse is primarily over getting caught rather than sorrow for his actions.
Red Bear thinks G. is still the aggressive, manipulative, persuasive man who convinced everybody that she and her sisters were rebellious troublemakers, ungrateful for the expensive home he, a dedicated Christian father, provided for them. She never reported the abuse as a child because she felt no one would believe her.
She recalled a family trip to Disneyland when G. commented that she must feel very lucky to have been adopted by his family and make the trip to Disneyland. “Just think of your brothers and sisters back on the reservation who don’t have a chance like this, he told me,” she said.
She recalls thinking that she should indeed be grateful; the thought of telling anyone about the sexual abuse seemed like a betrayal of all he had given her. She remained silent.
“He did his grooming well,” she noted.
According to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, “grooming” is psychological tactic used by abusers to engender in a child a sense that the abuser is special to the child and giving a kind of love that the child needs.
Red Bear was removed from her biological family at birth along with an older brother. After another older brother was hit and killed by a car, she believes her parents were overwhelmed with sorrow and sank into the depths of alcoholism. Her mother was jailed after nearly beating one of the other children to death. She gave birth to Red Bear while in prison.
Her father agreed to surrendering Red Bear and her brother for adoption only under the condition that they would be allowed to keep their names. “He wanted us to know who we were and where we came from,” she said.
This stipulation was a prescient protective measure for Red Bear.
A devout Christian active in the Baptist church, G. tried to keep his adopted children away from their heritage, portraying Native culture and ceremonies as voodoo and evil, according to Red Bear.
It was Lakota culture and spirituality, however that brought true vindication for Red Bear. “Ceremony helped me find a way of helping other women. It gave me the peace I needed to start sharing my healing process,” she said.
Before reconnecting to her Lakota ways, Red Bear saw softness as weakness. “I used to think I had to be stern in order to live life as a single mom and make good decisions,” she noted.
Ceremony and healing have softened her. “I’ve realized I can be resilient and soft at the same time. Ceremony has taught me a different way to be,” she noted.
In addition to raising her son, attending college, working as a fashion model for Native designers, writing magazine articles and poetry Red Bear does advocacy work for others who have been abused and assaulted.
She recently spoke to attendees at the Clothed in Strength, Honor and Beauty Conference on Human Trafficking Fashion Show in Sioux Falls.
In describing her healing, she told her audience, “I had to find that little fire that burns inside of me and make it burn brighter; that is the thing that kept me here and alive.”
In addition to traditional Lakota healing, Red Bear has also sought help and guidance through mainstream counseling. “We can’t count on others to feel things for us. In order to heal we have to take our pain in our own hands and do it for ourselves,” she said.
Young girls who have also been abused often seek Red Bear’s guidance. “I tell them to take time to heal themselves before embarking on any activism. I tell them they don’t owe anybody anything on that score,” she said.
She describes her own experience leading up to her current activism as a “bittersweet kind of thing. I’m happy to have found a way to help other women.”