By some estimates, sexual assault on U.S. Indian reservations is the worst in the world with one in three Native women assaulted during their lifetime. Unbelievably, it’s higher even than war-torn Serbia or the Republic of Congo. And the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming is no exception.
It’s the kind of big issue that would normally scare most people away. But not nine courageous women at Wind River Reservation who are trying a totally new approach. They deliver emergency care in person. And it all started when Eastern Shoshone descendant L'Dawn Olsen started writing letters to the editor of the Wind River News. Some of them directly addressed her daughter’s accused attacker.
“I will do it as long as I breathe,” Olsen says. “Every year on the anniversary of my—which was the morning of Thanksgiving was when she was raped. So in every Thanksgiving issue, I write a letter.”
And she kept writing, even when friends warned her that the alleged attacker’s family might retaliate, which is common when victims try to prosecute.
“Take extra insurance out on your house, this is what I was told,” Olsen says, laughing. “Also, is your house bulletproof? So, and it is.”
But the bullets never came. Instead, she found support from her tribe who invited her to help start a program to address the problem. That’s when she discovered Safe Stars, a growing national effort on reservations that trains respected women in the community as first responders for victims of rape, providing them whatever support a victim needs, whether physical, legal or spiritual. These women even take a lifelong vow to protect victims who come forward. It's the brainchild of Hallie Bongar-White, an attorney for the Southwest Center for Law and Policy in Tucson.
“Several years ago, we realized there was a huge disconnect between the volume of sexual violence in Indian Country and the criminal justice, health care, social services and community responses to sexual violence,” she says.
For instance, there is not a single sexual assault nurse examiners on the Wind River reservation. And Bongar-White says rural hospitals just aren't equipped to provide the kind of culturally sensitive services native victims might need. The Safe Star women aim to bring those services to victims in person, even if they call from a car or remote house. Bongar-White says they adapted a 40-hour nursing course and now are training lay Native women as sexual assault nurses in ten tribes with requests for many more around the country and the world.
“They're able to photograph injuries, use buccal swabs,” Bongar-White says. “If there's clothing with semen on it or panties have saliva from the perpetrator on them, they're able to package all the evidence.”
Northern Arapaho Millie Friday is a trained Safe Star. She unlocks her rape kit to show its contents. It's a black metal box specially designed by the FBI just for Safe Stars to use in the field and includes things like a magnifying glass, camera and the Morning After Pill. Friday also plans to stock her rape kit with healing plants.
“I would add sweetgrass and I'd even add cedar and then sage is good too,” she says.
Friday volunteered to become a Safe Star after her own daughter was raped by a close relative. In the hours afterward, Friday witnessed how badly the hospital and law enforcement handled her daughter’s case.
“We went straight to the emergency room and FBI was contacted. So she never even had that choice of what she wanted to do. It was just straight in,” Friday says. “And then all the re-victimization that happened in the hospital.”
Like being asked to remove her clothes and put her feet up in stirrups. Friday says, this insensitivity is one reason why few Native women report their assaults. Nationally, fewer than 68% of assaults are ever reported and that number is likely much, much higher on the reservation. Even now, almost 70% of all reported assaults on the reservation never make it to trial, let alone a conviction.
But Friday thinks more women will report with the help of Safe Stars. The question is, will more reports turn into more convictions?
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Jacobson has worked on numerous sexual assault cases on the Wind River Reservation. "One issue as a prosecutor is how is the evidence by the Safe Stars going to hold up in federal court? Because it wasn't collected under sterile circumstances and so if you've got physical evidence being collected out of a Safe Star's car or home, then there's going to be at least the specter of potential tainting.”
The rape kits do include latex gloves, a drop cloth, and other items to assure sterile evidence. But in their five years, Safe Stars has helped in only three convictions. But Jacobson says, even if Safe Stars can’t get many convictions, they will do something even more important: give a victim a circle of respected women to protect her. Many times, she says the victim is so scared of retaliation and social shunning, she stops cooperating with her lawyer.
"Very often [the rapist and his family] will obstruct the prosecution, hide the victim, pressure the victim to recant," Jacobson says. "These are very hard cases to move forward with because, by the time, we get to trial our victim is either scared or has withdrawn her support for the prosecution out of her own personal necessity."
Jacobson says it’s a cycle of abuse and silence that comes from historical trauma. "The females of the family have all been sexually assaulted, they have all kept it under wraps, they've buried it deep down inside," she says. "And so that woman begets that same method of dealing with victimization to her daughter and her daughter and so on and so forth."
Safe Star Millie Friday says such trauma is left over from when Native children were sent to boarding schools.
“Because the majority were parochial schools,” she says. “The nuns, some of the people who worked in those boarding schools. And then, [the victims] becoming perpetrators later in life and the cycle going round and round and round.”
Friday says Safe Stars goal is to start to help heal that historical trauma. She has a message for the new generation of young women:
“We're going to stop that cycle of violence,” she says. “And how we're going to stop it is, when you get older, you’ll know it's not normal, you don't raise your kids that way, you hug your kids and you tell them, I love you, and you mean it. That's how we're going to stop that cycle.”
The Wind River Safe Stars plan to complete their final phase of training this fall and begin offering their services in coming months.
You can hear a complete reading of L'Dawn Olsen's Letter to the Editor below.