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Violence against women prompts many Rosebud Reservation suicides

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By Carson Walker -- Associated Press

MISSION, S.D. (AP) - A suicide epidemic on the Rosebud Indian Reservation largely stems from broken relationships and violence against women, according to two victims and the head of a women's shelter that's helping them.

''There were days I just wanted to lay down and die,'' said one 18-year-old victim who was raped three years ago by a young man sent to prison for it.

''I never thought I would honestly live this long because I wanted so badly to die. I always thought of killing myself, but whenever I actually got down to trying to do it, I didn't want to do it because I would leave my dad behind and I'm too close to my father.''

The Associated Press has a policy of not naming victims of sexual assault.

Earlier this year, the tribal council declared a state of emergency because of the high rate of suicides on Rosebud, most of them committed by young people.

The young woman said the support and advocacy she received at the White Buffalo Calf Shelter in Mission helped her realize the attack didn't have to sentence her to a lifetime of seclusion, though now she picks her friends more carefully.

Some of them also have been raped and contemplated suicide, she said.

Another woman, who is in her 40s and married to a Rosebud tribal member, said she went to the shelter last fall to escape a husband who physically and verbally abused her in front of their three children.

She said she left him only after seeing how the abuse prompted her oldest daughter to attempt suicide.

''I didn't hear the cries. I didn't hear the complaints, the nagging and what was going on. And so I more or less turned my back until it was too late,'' the woman said.

Tribal respect for women and children was much stronger before the European colonization of America, said Tillie Black Bear, director of the shelter that opened in 1977 and can house up to 45 women and children.

''Consequences were quick and swift. People knew when they violated a woman, their life was at risk,'' added Nichole Witt, the shelter's grant manager.

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More women now realize they don't have to stay in a bad situation and can get help if they are sexually abused, Black Bear said.

She said the catalyst was the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which brought better training for police and more funding for prosecution. Rosebud was one of the first tribes to receive a grant under the act.

''It's not unusual for a woman to report that she was sexually violated or beaten. But before 1994, that stayed within the family,'' Black Bear said.

Still, the Justice Department reported in December that between 1993 and 2004, about 18 out of every 1,000 American Indian and Alaska Native women were victimized - three times the rate among white women.

Part of that likely is due to substance abuse that's an underlying issue with many reservation families, Black Bear said.

''I think a majority of our youth are unhappy about their parents using alcohol and drugs,'' Black Bear said. ''It steals their youth.''

The domestic violence victim agreed.

''How many more kids are going to have to suffer? It's bad enough that the young kids are dying, 15, 14, 13 years old. And they're still babies. And it's got to be a wake-up call,'' she said.

The rape victim said many of her friends confide in her parents because their own families ignore them.

''People come to my mom and dad and talk to them because their mom will just push them aside and pick up a beer and say, 'That's better,''' she said.

''So they turn to their friends and alcohol and drugs and say, 'Oh, this is how my mom and dad deal with it and this is how we're going to deal with it.'''

Black Bear agreed much of the suicide problem stems from parents who aren't available to children because of their own alcohol and drug use.

''The suicides happen because people are making a permanent decision about a temporary problem. When a relationship goes bad or sour, what happens is many of these young people feel like there's no way out for them. There's no way to express their feelings, their pain or hurt, and suicide is an answer,'' she said.