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Traditional ceremonies included in candlelight vigil

DURANGO, Colo. - A hearing for three men accused of the rape and murder of a Dine' woman prompted the Our Sister's Keeper Coalition of Durango to hold a candlelight vigil with traditional ceremony. ''We wanted to honor this victim and others prior to the hearing,'' said Diane Millich, coalition executive director.

''In one month alone, there have been seven deaths due to sexual assaults involving Ignacio [Southern Ute] and Towaoc [Ute Mountain Ute]. Each victim was of color,'' Millich said.

''We are shining a candle light on something kept hidden on reservations for centuries,'' Millich said. ''We invited two drums, medicine men and spiritual people. Tribal people are very pleased, but it is urgent. There is an epidemic going on.''

Millich's family has lived in the area for eight generations; in that time, there has never been a public traditional honoring ceremony for victims of violent crime.

In November 2006, the FBI was requested to put a special agent in the area because the combined murder rate on the two Ute reservations was 20 times the state average.

According to the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 55 separate domestic violence programs responded to 41,000 crisis calls within the state. Outreach service programs were provided to 20,000 people and sheltered 5,600 women and children for a total of 88,000 nights. An equal amount of women and children had to be turned away due to lack of space. CCADV reported approximately $902,000 in funding for the combined state domestic violence efforts.

CCADV awarded Millich with the first 2006 Community Impact Award from the Violence Survivors' Task Force. Her office was first opened in July of 2006.

''We wanted to open on a reservation because of the need, but we will assist all individuals because ours is a border town,'' Millich said.

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''We have seven volunteers who while here are working every single hour. We are slowly getting grants, but that money will go into the program's hotline, office space and equipment, and gas to transport the victims to court.

''Most of us have full-time jobs, and then volunteer here,'' said Millich, herself a domestic violence survivor. ''As a survivor, I am committed to provide services for all women, but especially want to provide services for [tribal] women.''

''There are many nonprofits, but they are predominantly Anglo. Without empathy, it is difficult for tribal people to get help. So we are showing this is one way.''

''The state never really advocated for Native people. Now, we will honor our Native women as well as Latino women.''

Millich explained that service organizations are aware that there is a 67 percent increase in the chance of being murdered when someone leaves a domestic violence situation. In addition, she said, ''We have small towns that are very isolated, and 99 percent of the people are born, live, stay and die here. So the actual consequence is that especially sexual assault has been kept secret for years. Domestic violence goes hand in hand with obesity, diabetes, mental illness and alcoholism. In the older generations we don't have the drug addictions, but now there is a big increase in drug use that is perpetuating the violence.''

The candlelight vigil and traditional honoring ceremonies were held in particular for Nikole Leigh Red Horse, 34, Dine', who was sexually assaulted and murdered; and for Patricia Pacheco, 46, of Ute and Hispanic descent, a domestic violence victim who was also murdered.

According to the Public Health Newsletter for Boulder County, $236,000 in grants were awarded for sexual assault prevention programs. Of that, $25,000 was awarded for the ''All our Relations Project'' to fund the comprehensive planning and development of culturally specific sexual violence prevention strategies for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. ''Drawing from the culture and traditions of the Southern Ute Tribe, the project will focus on building the capacity for effective prevention on the reservation, assessing needs and developing appropriate services. The project will serve La Plata County.''

Millich is a former academy director of the Southern Ute Indian Academy, located on a boarding school where students were at one time forbidden to speak Ute. Now, there is a language immersion program there. She has also served on the Fort Lewis College Alumni and Friends Association executive board.