Vigil against sexual assault held in Denver.

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Carol Berry -- Today corresondent

DENVER - Hazy Colorado sunshine nearly obscured the light of candles carried by women who gathered April 5 for a vigil in front of the state Capitol to honor Native and non-Native victims of sexual violence.

Gov. Bill Ritter proclaimed April Native American Sexual Assault Awareness month in Colorado, where 420 women who were victims of domestic violence in 2007 were served by Our Sister's Keeper Coalition, the group that sponsored the gathering.

''In my community of Towaoc, people said you shouldn't talk about sexual assault,'' said Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute and executive director of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, who read the proclamation. ''It is not an easy thing to talk about.''

''We're holding a candlelight vigil to shine a light on sexual assault on Native lands,'' said Diane Millich, Southern Ute, founder and executive director of the coalition, which is based in Ignacio on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe's reservation and in Durango, both in southwestern Colorado. ''It has been hidden far too long.''

The ceremony began with a Sun Dance song by Kenny Frost, Southern Ute, an American Indian consultant in several fields and spiritual adviser to the coalition. ''The first part of healing is talking about it,'' he said.

One participant described a reservation family beset by domestic violence, substance abuse and sexual assault, and said it took years of depression to bring her to therapy and counseling.

''My family didn't know how to deal with these sorts of things,'' she said, describing the silence that surrounded the chaos. ''My mother didn't know what to say to me.''

One of the most important functions the coalition can perform is to open up subjects that have been regarded as taboo, awkward, embarrassing or otherwise unacceptable in tribal communities, coalition board members said.

It is important to communicate that sexual and domestic violence are not normal, even if they have occurred over several generations, and that ''it's OK to talk about it in a safe place,'' Millich said.

The ''don't talk'' rule can stem from many causes, board members said, including fear of appearing to be going against relatives or other tribal members, fear related to spiritual issues or beliefs, fear of retribution by perpetrators or others, fear of loss of dignity or social status, fear of a lack of confidentiality, or simply a lack of the services necessary to provide a safety net for victims.

''By bringing things out into the open, we can begin to break the cycle of violence,'' Millich said, noting that elders and tribal leaders have expressed concern that if substance abuse and violence continue among the young, ''who will lead our tribe in the future?''

In addition to Millich and Frost, program volunteers include Cambria Bizardi, Dine', board member; Wendy Krull, board chair; and Melva Romero-Caveness, Pueblo, board member and Native American coordinator for the nonprofit organization.

''It's like the way we used to talk about mental health 10 years ago,'' Romero-Caveness said. ''Now it's getting acceptable to say things like, 'I'm going to see my therapist.'''

Reasons abound for sexual assault and domestic violence in Native communities, board members said. First on a lot of lists is the symbiotic relationship between violence and substance abuse, including the rampant methamphetamine epidemic on many reservations with its link to horrific abuse, often of children, as well as alcoholism and other addictions.

Intergenerational abuse also contributes to current levels of sexual violence and the silence surrounding it. Bizardi said that children who are sexually assaulted by teachers in boarding schools may become perpetrators themselves when they are older with their younger cousins ''and no one talks about it.''

Extended families living together is common in Native society, Millich said, and ''at what point do our loved ones cross the line, especially if there's alcohol and parties going on?''

Some Native men have adopted the kinds of abuse against and attitudes toward Native women that were a part of colonization; and over time, some men have lost their traditional role as family providers. Similarly, some who witnessed abuse when young learn to adopt that behavior.

Codes of ethics like those adopted by the Southern Utes, Jicarilla Apache and Navajo Nation set an example, board members said. Current Southern Ute tribal leaders and tribal elders have been supportive of open discussion and the kinds of programs the coalition offers.

In order to build momentum for a shelter for sexual assault and domestic violence victims, a Southern Ute Tribal Council resolution passed in September 2007 supporting the coalition's work may be presented to tribal councils of the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and to the Native American Center at Fort Lewis College - Durango, with a request for similar support from them. Funding will also be sought from other sources.

''We hope to say as a community that we're all interested in helping our victims become survivors,'' Millich said. The group hopes to have a facility open by December 2009. Currently, the organization receives funding primarily from the U.S. Department of Justice and grants from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

The coalition began on a shoestring budget, operating out of a back bedroom in Millich's home, to bridge gaps of isolation and distance in existing services, to provide culturally competent assistance, and to expand services from meeting immediate crisis needs to taking into account ''what happens a year from now, or longer.''

In the Four Corners area, where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet, it can mean a drive of up to 150 miles to reach a domestic violence shelter; but problems with taking children, trying to work and pay bills, and uprooting families make it nearly impossible for people to go into shelters even 30 miles away, Millich said.

In many shelters, boys older than 10 are not allowed, which can shatter families. Any realistic shelter program should strengthen families, including extended families, Romero-Caveness said.

The healing ceremony Frost performed was to lift some of the weight from the shoulders of those who feel they are suffering alone and who have been suffering in silence, he said.

For victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse, healing may involve non-European methods of counseling, traditional practitioners, Native American Church or other beliefs, the use of sweat lodges, and other practices, he said.

As the candles were lit in the circle, Millich asked participants to remember those people they knew who had been victimized - because everyone there indicated either they or someone they knew had been affected by sexual assault.

Every seven seconds, police get a call that someone has been sexually assaulted, she said; and by bedtime, 100 people will have been victimized.