NCAI spearheads effort to stop violence against women

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WASHINGTON - Native women are the most victimized group in the country. Indian women are raped and sexually assaulted more than double the number of times of women of other races. The violent crime rate for American Indian females during a 1992 to 1996 Department of Justice study was 98 per 1,000 compared to 40 per 1,000 among white females or 56 per 1,000 among black females.

"We are trying to get national leadership to look at this," said Cecelia Fire Thunder, Lakota, of Pine Ridge, S.D. "We need resources."

Fire Thunder is the public educator for Canglska (Medicine Wheel) Inc., a domestic violence program in Pine Ridge. A part of Canglska is Sacred Circle in Rapid City, a national resource center to end violence against Native women. Sacred Circle brought the issue to the National Congress of American Indians. In response, last June at their mid-session meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., NCAI passed a resolution to investigate the problem. In February a group will be meeting in Washington to learn when Congress can hold hearings across Indian country and what legislation can be passed to strengthen current laws.

"As a Lakota woman, my voice is not as strong as having the weight of national leadership," Fire Thunder said. "We need more resources in Indian communities to respond to these women."

In Pine Ridge, a 58-page code outlines everyone's role and response in a case of rape. In 1989 they were the first tribe to pass a mandatory rape law.

"It's a thing that we ask ourselves on this reservation," she said. "Are we willing to do whatever it takes to make this change?"

Rape is "sky high on reservations," she said. Whatever numbers are reported, multiply that by four to get a realistic idea of the number of rapes occurring.

At least 70 percent of violent victimizations against American Indians are committed by persons not of the same race, according to DOJ. That means that 30 percent of Indian victims were victimized by someone of their own race, compared to 81 percent of black victims and 69 percent of white people who were victimized by someone of their own races. Although they account for just under 1 percent of the population in America, they are victims more than twice the rate of whites, blacks or Asians. About half of these crimes are against females.

"If you walked into a room of Native women, you can assume every one of them has been a victim of incest, assault or rape," said Karen Artichoker, director of Sacred Circle.

The effort began when the women looked at domestic violence and saw that women who are battered by their partners will also be raped by their partners.

"Any time a man abuses a woman, he will violate her sexually," she said. "A lot of people have a hard time accepting that. They want to separate the two."

About eight in 10 American Indian victims of rape or sexual assault were victimized by someone of another race. Among victims of all races, about 11 percent of intimate victims and 5 percent of family victims reported the offender to be of a different race. But among Native victims, 75 percent of intimate victimizations and 25 percent of family victimizations involve a different race.

Artichoker said the 1994 Violence Against Women Act has not been strengthened enough to protect tribal women. If a non-tribal person commits this act of violence on a tribal woman, the tribal courts have no jurisdiction other than to arrest and hold the offender until a sheriff's deputy comes in. Tribes have civil contempt authority and can bring civil action against an offender, but it has not promoted the safety of Native women, they said.

Women's safety is inextricably tied to the sovereignty issues of Native people, Artichoker said.

"As women, we're visionaries," she said. "Our goal is restoration of individuals and families. As Native people we have the advantage because we have these teachings. But until women have access to safety, they won't be in an environment for self-growth."

The first step is legal changes in how these violations are responded to and educating women to report the crime and know that something will be done.

"The message now is that it doesn't matter if they report it, nothing will be done," Fire Thunder said. "A part of the problem is that we don't have a more uniform way of reporting."

But whether a woman reports the rape or not, she needs to be taken care of, she said. Women never get over that. They put it away, but somewhere deep inside the ache is still there, Fire Thunder said. When a mother cries, her children cry, said Artichoker. The violence is directly related to alcohol and drug addiction which in turn affects care of the next generation.

"Sometimes I don't think people really understand the trauma, the tremendous loss she suffers when she's been raped," Fire Thunder said. "One thing we do is to try to explain the act of intercourse that we have to give permission through body language and a spiritual connection when we give someone a gift. You're sharing all of who you are. When someone takes something from you, they are taking something sacred. In a good healthy relationship, a man is willing to let you give the gift of yourself. When it's taken by rape, it violates that."

It takes a long time to get back to a place where you can give yourself, she said.