For Native Women, High Price of Rape Goes Untold

The Cherokee Nation has begun an advertising campaign to encourage native women to seek help.Credit: Photo by Suzette Brewer
The Cherokee Nation has begun an advertising campaign to encourage native women to seek help.
Credit: Photo by Suzette Brewer

There’s no way to quantify the damage, but tribal leaders estimate it’s in the billions. “It happens every day in every native community; it’s that common,” says Jodi Gillette, former special assistant on Native American Affairs to the White House.

By Suzette Brewer, WeNews Correspondent

STILWELL, Okla. (WOMENSENEWS)– For six years Brendan Johnson served as U.S. attorney for the State of South Dakota.

During his time as federal prosecutor, Johnson says fully 100 percent of the women and girls engaged in the sex trafficking industry were victims of rape and-or sexual abuse earlier in their lives.

“We had an underage girl from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota who was picked up in Sioux Falls and wound up in a sex ring,” said Johnson, who is now in private practice, in a phone interview from his office in Sioux Falls, S.D. “She was a single mother and had not a penny to her name, which is very common. She didn’t want to rely on government assistance because of the fear that her child would be taken away. She had also been sexually abused prior to this. So the high economic impact of these situations is hard to accurately quantify, because of post-traumatic stress disorder and the related issues for girls who are vulnerable targets for these criminals.”

Tribal women are the most vulnerable group of women when it comes to rape; nearly three times as likely to suffer sexual assault than all other races in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

“It happens every day in every native community–it’s that common,” says Jodi Gillette, the former special assistant on Native American Affairs to the White House. “I know literally dozens of women who have told me at one point or another that they were raped or sexually abused, but no one talks about it because of the stigma. So they suffer in silence.”

Gillette, who now serves as a tribal policy advisor for the Sonosky Chambers law firm in Washington, D.C., recently testified at the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva that even with recent passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, which closed jurisdictional gaps and allowed non-tribal perpetrators to be tried in tribal courts, much work remains to be done.

Basic Services a Struggle

“Many tribes struggle to provide basic victims services, necessary training and staff for courts and adequate mental health care,” said Gillette in a recent phone interview. “To this day, tribes still cannot prosecute non-Indians for child abuse, rape and other serious crimes against women and children and must rely on the federal authorities, who usually only prosecute the worst crimes. This leaves vulnerable many Indigenous women and children unprotected in their own homelands.”

Nearly one-third of tribal women, or approximately 875,000 nationwide, report being raped at some time in their lives. Two-thirds of their perpetrators are non-Indian, who until very recently could not be prosecuted in tribal court and are still unlikely to ever face formal charges for their crimes in state or federal court. This is due, in part, to the fact that–despite the recent expansions of tribal court to prosecute rape–many smaller and-or remote tribes either do not have their own tribal court systems and do not have the resources to establish one.

The scourge of rape in Indian country has impacted every single community among the nation’s 567 federally-recognized tribes, whose total population hovers around 5.2 million.

The costs–both emotional and financial–are staggering for communities already beset by poverty and its attendant social problems in geographically isolated regions.

The American College of Emergency Physicians, based in Irving, Texas, estimates that the tangible costs of rape–for both the victim and the society–are approximately $150,000 per victim. That amount covers a range of categories including expenses for justice and prosecution, physical and mental health issues for the woman and her family, social services including emergency response teams and shelters, loss of education, loss of wages and/or employment.

Emotional costs, including pain and suffering for the victim and her children, possible death of the victim, including suicide and others, are incalculable.

Native American writer Louise Erdrich, in her 2012 book “The Round House,” tells the story of Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe woman who has been raped on Indian land. After her attacker goes free because of jurisdictional issues on Indian reservations, her teenaged son sets out on a quest to seek justice for his mother, who has retreated to her bed, paralyzed by grief and trauma.

Though the story is fictional, Erdrich’s book accurately captures the terrible toll of rape for Native women

Tribal leaders estimate that the final tally is in the billions for native communities already strapped by poverty and lack of opportunity.

Overlapping Issues

The pervasive and pernicious nature of sexual assault and abuse overlaps with a variety of other serious issues within native communities.

“Sexual assault presents some of the greatest challenges in Indian country,” Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in a recent email interview. “Because of the devastating impact that sexual assault can have on self-worth and self-esteem, we know that it may be a contributing factor to the epidemic of youth suicides. As we try to help tribal communities cope with a suicide crisis, it is imperative that we address each of the risk factors. For that reason, we have been working on better responding to the needs of survivors of sexual assault.”

Across the country, geographic isolation and jurisdictional complexities continue to be the biggest obstacles in both the prosecution and restitution of these crimes, particularly in Alaska, which has 229 tribes and is nearly three times larger than Texas.

The Northern Plains and the tribes of the Southwest are similarly situated, with tribal law enforcement and social service departments already bursting with overflowing caseloads and limited resources to prosecute. But with a growing sense of urgency, many tribes are redirecting as many resources as possible to address what is regarded as a human rights crisis in Indian communities.

The two largest tribes–the Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation, for example–have dedicated agencies to assist their tribal members who are victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes. In 2013, the Cherokee Nation opened the One Fire Victims Service Office, which provides emergency advocate assistance to law enforcement, transitional housing and even legal assistance for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or dating violence.

Help Navigating the System

The Navajo Nation Victims Assistance Program also works closely with the three states within its boundaries–Arizona, New Mexico and Utah–to assist its tribal members with help in navigating the legal system, as well as completing applications for financial assistance for health-related expenses, costs of funerals, lost wages, eyewear, and Native healing ceremonies and traditional medicine people.

The smaller tribes, many of whom have poor economies and high unemployment, still struggle with the enormous legal, logistic and financial burdens of sexual assault in their communities.

For them, not much has changed over the years, in spite of new legislation and programs to help stem the violence against Native women.

Gillette recalls a high school friend from the 1980s whose case is one of the few that have ever gone to trial. She says her friend, who was from the Northern Plains, was skewered and portrayed as a “whore” on the stand after being gang-raped by a half-dozen white teenagers from a neighboring community, even though she was a virgin at the time of the assault. Nonetheless, her perpetrators went free while her friend felt punished for coming forward.

“They made an example of her,” said Gillette, who remains haunted by her friend’s case. “The message was clear, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you if you tell.’ And she was only 15 years old. In this day and age, you’d think we’re past that–but we’re not.”

Mescalero women honored in documentary

A former Mescalero president and a first lady among women featured in film

By Dianne Stallings, Ruidoso News

Selena and Mark Chino are featured in the "A Thousand Voices" documentary for their involvement with domestic violence victims and their encouragement of the empowerment of Native American women. (Courtesy)
Selena and Mark Chino are featured in the “A Thousand Voices” documentary for their involvement with domestic violence victims and their encouragement of the empowerment of Native American women. (Courtesy)

A former Mescalero Apache president and a first lady of the tribe will be featured in a documentary.”A Thousand Voices,” filmed by Silver Bullet Productions.

Sandra Platero served as president after the resignation of Fred Chino and before the election of current Mescalero President Danny Breuninger. Previously, she served as vice president and on the tribal council. Attempts to reach Platero for an interview were unsuccessful.

Selena Chino is the wife of Mark Chino, who served as Mescalero president three times. She was a victims’ advocate and tribal liaison with the Nest, Lincoln County’s only domestic violence shelter, and she served as a state tourism commissioner.

Selena and Mark attended a rough cut screening of the documentary on June 5, and the film is slated for a final version screening July 21, free at Buffalo Thunder (Resort and Casino) in Santa Fe. Check the Silver Bullet website for the time. Silver Bullet films also usually screen at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. and air on the Public Broadcasting System, a company spokesman said.

“I’m extremely proud of Selena,” Mark said. “She and her efforts to help domestic violence victims came to Pamela Pierce’s attention in mid-2013, and Selena was asked to appear in the film. She was recognized purely through her own efforts, as I already had left office.”

Pierce is chief executive officer of Silver Bullet Productions, a nonprofit founded in 2004, and based in Santa Fe. The organization with staff and volunteers stages cultural workshops with the aim of empowering Native American youths by raising their educational aspirations and by cultivating young filmmakers. The organization has produced 31 projects with the help of sponsors and recently received the Yawa’ Award for special projects, given to nonprofits that put actions to their words. The company’s “Canes of Power” also won four regional Emmys.

Silver Bullet was formed because of concerns by members of Native American groups over the loss of language, cultural and community, according to Pierce.

“A Thousand Voices” is the story of the inherent power of tribal women in New Mexico, and was filmed partly through funding with the San Manuel Board of Mission Indians. Besides the screenings and possible PBS airing, the film will be presented to students, who will participate in writing the curriculum and discussion guide that will accompany the documentary, following a pattern for all of Silver Bullet’s films, Pierce wrote in a memorandum to participants before the rough cut was screened.

“The production of this film has been a wonderful journey,” Pierce wrote. “Each of our participants has been revealing in ways that educate and shatter stereotypes.”

“A Thousand Voices” looks at the traditional roles of tribal women and poses the questions of how stereotypes from the media and literature altered the reality of tribal women, what are the universal lessons to be learned from the traditional values and the current status of Native American woman; and what are the threats to native communities, if women do not continue to play their crucial roles?

Selection process

As a domestic violence survivor and victims’ advocate, former first lady of the Mescalero, a state tourism commissioner, a store manager, and since May, a front desk manager and concierge for the tribe’s Inn of the Mountain Gods, Selena Chino was a natural choice for inclusion in “A Thousand Voices.”

A panel of tribal advisors from a variety of tribes, and representatives from Silver Bullet looked at the candidates.

“You can be a wonderful person, but you may not always come off as being able to state what your beliefs are and have the courage to state them,” Pierce said. “It’s not enough to stand for something, you have to be able to say it in a way that other men and women can relate to you. That certainly was true for Selena, Mark and Sandra.”

“The theme of the film is about the inherent strength of tribal woman and how that strength diminished or changed because of the white invasion from Spain, Mexico and the United States, and then return again to the strength of women that goes back to the beginning of time, and still is there despite the challenges,” Pierce said during a telephone interview Wednesday. “That strength is there in our modern current New Mexico tribal women. The reason Selena and her husband were selected was because they represent that strength. Selena represents it in two ways. She is married to a previous president of an Apache tribe and that takes strength to be married to a leader, no matter what your gender, and to be involved in a political family. And also because of her commitment to empowering women who have been victims of domestic violence. It was important to include that voice, not just from women. Selena and Mark together represent a belief in the hope for tribal women to survive domestic violence. It was obvious from the first time I spoke with her that she was somebody I really felt would enhance the message of the film.”

For Sandra Platero, “It was the strength of being a woman leader among other tribes that do not have women leaders,” Pierce said. “She certainly was a spokesperson for her language and her leadership.

“I think both women and their families deserve praise. It takes a lot of courage and determination and they showed that.”

Selena Chino

“I received a phone call in September from Pamela Pierce with Silver Bullet,” Selena said. “She mentioned there was a big meeting and they were kicking around who they would want to interview. She didn’t say who suggested my name. I had to go up to Santa Fe anyway during the Indian Market, We arranged time to talk. She came to Buffalo Thunder and we sat down. Thee project focuses on Indian women of power and how they have juggled their involvement with government, plus tribal culture and being a mother, how they keep culture and traditions alive while still doing all these empowerment things.”

Initially Pierce was looking for ideas for the project, Selena said.

“I mentioned that from 2008 to 2010, I worked as outreach coordinator at The Nest,” Selena said. “I was an advocate on Wednesdays, and that’s where my domestic violence and sexual assault training came from, helping residents. Then I became liaison between the tribe and Nest. (Pierce) began focusing, because I mentioned that domestic violence is the number one killer of Native American women nationwide. We started talking about that. She said she would really like to interview me. About that time Mark walked by and I introduced them, and she dragged him in. He was involved with the Nest too, being the president and volunteering. He spoke about how his view had changed from (his years in) law enforcement and what he learned from me being involved with the Nest. She wanted to interview him too.”

After seeing the raw cut of the film earlier this month, “It blows our minds to be involved with something like this, to be on PBS, in schools with workbooks,” Selena said.

Although the couple no longer has a daily involvement with the Nest, Selena said it is part of their lives.

“I still help as much as I can,” she said. “I still have people calling my cell phone just because they need help. I have people who stop me and ask questions, because they know me. So I still help out people even though I am not directly involved with the Nest anymore. People know I’m here (at the Inn) and ask how did you do this facing this situation and who can I call and who can I talk to.”

Selena can empathize with those exposed to domestic violence, because she dealt with the behavior in her first marriage.

“My life is very complicated story,” she said. “My mother went to school at Pasadena City College. She was not raised on the reservation, because of a program of relocation of kids on the Hopi reservation. There was a grant in the 1950s that helped send a student to a family, who helped support them and put them through college while they took care of their kids and helped around the house. That’s how she ended up in Pasadena. She also was a runner up for queen in the Rose Bowl Parade. She would have been first Native American queen had she won. She always encouraged me to go further, not to stay on the reservation, to get involved in a lot of interests.”

Selena’s father died in 2002 and her mother in 2006. “She was very beautiful inside and out,” Selena said of her mother. “She met my father when her family lived in Winslow, Ariz. He was the boy next door and the parents were friends, They were college sweethearts, They got married, then they got divorced, they remarried and divorced again. And at very end were living together, because they got along better when they were not married. I was her maid of honor the second time. We lived in Grants at that time. I wasn’t raised on the reservation. I moved back here in 1978.”

Selena said she was married for five years to a “very abusive man,” and went through the experience of having her self esteem and confidence constantly assaulted, then pulling herself up and moving forward. “It’s been a long road,” she said. “I’ve been where they’ve been at the Nest.

“Then I met Mark, who is very patient, thank God, because I have all this baggage with me. But with confidence from him and his support, I know what a healthy relationship is with him. It’s loving, it’s supportive. Everything that he’s given me.”

The couple celebrated their 20th anniversary on April 30, which Selena said, “Is an accomplishment right there. We’re totally opposite. He’s so quiet and reserved. On the other side, I talk to everybody, have conversations with people I don’t even know.”

While Mark was in office, Selena often accompanied him on trips, including the nation’s capitol, developing personal relationships with dignitaries and elected officials such as (New Mexico former attorney general) Patricia Madrid, Gov. Susana Martinez and Secretary of State Dianna Duran.

“As a former tourism commissioner, former first lady, the facets of my life are so complicated,” Selena said. “I don’t think I’m really involved in a lot of stuff. I do it, because I enjoy it. I just do it to help people, not add things to my resume.”

Those interviewed for the film were Georgene Louis, Acoma attorney and state legislator; Richard Luarkie and family, Laguna governor; Lela Kaskalla, past governor of Nambe; Sandra Platero and husband Paul; Selena Chino and husband Mark; Christy Bird, 16-year-old singer from Santa Domingo, who performed on a commercial for the Super Bowl; Rose B. Simpson, Santa Clara artist; Patricia Michaels, award winning designer on Project Runway from Taos Pueblo; Veronica Tiller, Jicarilla Apache historian and author; Navajo woman weavers from Two Grey Hills and Toadlena Trading Post; Luci Tapahonso, Navajo poet lureate; Matthew Martinez, historian and grandson of Esther Martinez of Ohkay Owingeh; and Liana Sanchez and family, owner of Avanyu LLC Construction company, San Ildefonso.