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Even With High Sexual Assault Rates, Reservation Lacks Funds For Safe House

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Melodie Edwards
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For victims of violent crime on the Wind River Indian Reservation, finding help and safety after an attack can be hard. A lack of funding means there are very few services for crime victims there. Recently, the only safe house for victims of sexual assault on Wind River closed down when its funding went dry, forcing victims to risk traveling to nearby towns to shelters off the reservation. But a new bill recently introduced in Congress would make it easier for tribes to get money to run their own safe house.  

It took Northern Arapaho member Kendra Smith over a year of pushing back deadlines and writing grants to start the Wind River Reservation sex offender registry. She says being a victim of sexual assault herself, she felt driven to make her community safer. She now posts a list of 51 people on the reservation who’ve been convicted of sexual crimes. She says that’s a lot in a population of 12,000.

“Now, that is not counting the ones that are still out there that we have not even picked up.”

Nationwide, as many as two-thirds of sexual assaults are never reported and many suspect it’s much worse on the country’s reservations.

Smith says, being molested left hard questions that have lingered a lifetime.

She twists a Kleenex in her hands and dabs her eyes. “Here’s the question I can’t answer,” she says, taking a deep breath. “Did I ask my dad, my stepdad, to molest me? No, there’s the key. No fricking stepkid asks to get molested.”

Smith says being abused as a child left her afraid to report as an adult. She says she’s been raped several times in her life by strangers and acquaintances. Never once did she press charges.

“I don’t know if I would have survived the trauma of court because, holy smokes, I would have had to tell my mom.”

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Credit Melodie Edwards
Fremont County Alliance Against Domestic Violence Director Sydney Moller in her Riverton office.

Fremont County Safe House Director Sydney Moller says, about 60 percent of her shelter clients in Riverton are Native American, and she’s seen that a lack of family support for victims is common. She says that’s why safe shelters are so important for Native communities.

“The victim’s own mother is saying, well, why did you go report him? So when we have a situation like that it’s almost always a shelter situation.”

She says, whether it’s on the reservation or off, a shelter is a place to learn how to file charges, make a plan for the future and get counseling. These are crucial, she says, when the fear of losing your community is as terrifying as physical violence.

“Even the victims own family might support the batterer instead of the victim,” she says, “because when the victim goes outside the community it’s kind of turning your back on the whole community.”

And she says rape on Wind River is almost the rule, not the exception. She has done extensive research, interviewing tribal police, victim service groups and numerous agencies around Wind River.

“Best numbers I get are anywhere between 95 and 100 percent of women and girls on the reservation will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. And seven in ten boys,” she says. “That’s massive trauma in a community with very limited resources.” 

Moller says, sure, it’d be ideal if Native women could go to a safe house on the reservation since it would make it easier for women to seek help inside a community they trust. But since they can’t, she’s doing what she can to make them feel welcome. The shelter supplies healing herbs and it’s been blessed by a medicine man.

“If she requests that she wants a medicine man or a native healer there with her, we will make it happen. We have the phone numbers to call.”

Best numbers I get are anywhere between 95 and 100 percent of women and girls on the reservation will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. And seven in ten boys. That's massive trauma in a community with very limited resources.

Eastern Shoshone member and Fremont County Attorney Sara Robinson volunteers for the sexual assault advocacy group, Safe Stars. She says, it’s great that the county’s safe house is culturally welcoming, but the reservation needs its own shelter too. She says, when tribal-run services disappear, community norms that aren’t always friendly to women may fill that void.

“Because of the way, you know, courts work, law enforcement works, investigations work, it just kind of moves along too slow for them,” Robinson says. “So they’re thinking, well, we’re just going to deal with it our way, whatever that means.

Robinson describes a recent case against a grandfather who allegedly sexually abused three of his granddaughters.

“They have not moved anywhere on that because the rest of the family is kind of protecting him. And so now [the girls] are the ones that have been excluded.

Robinson says the reason Sacred Shield, the reservation shelter, closed down was a lack of money. The federal government distributes over $2 billion dollars a year for all victims of crimes in the U.S. through the Department of Justice. But most years, the country’s 562 tribes are divvying up less than one percent of that.

“We’re all just still fighting over those little pieces,” Robinson says.

Wyoming U.S. Senator John Barrasso wants to increase the size of those pieces. He’s chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that recently introduced the SURVIVE Act or the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act. Indian Affairs Committee staff director Mike Andrews says this act would eliminate the middle men and funnel money directly to tribes.

“It’s the tribes and the Department of Interior that will be working on the distribution amount. And really cutting the red tape of going through the Department of the Justice or the states,” Andrews says.

He says, if it passes, the bill would give tribes five times more Victims Of Crime Act Funds than they currently receive.

“So let’s say for example, if this year the VOCA amount is $2.2 billion dollars. Five percent of that, you’re looking anywhere from $100 to $105 million that will be generated for Indian Country to use for victim services.

The SURVIVE Act recently moved out of committee with strong bipartisan support. It now heads to the Senate for a vote.

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