Childhood sexual violence on the reservation: It has to stop!
by Sister Teresa Ann Wolf, OSB
To Avina it was part of her job; she had been requested to demonstrate how to make dream catchers to a women’s group.
While she waited her turn on the program, she listened, at first curious and then stupefied – these quiet, friendly women were sharing their experiences of childhood sex abuse and violence!
All at once, the dark secret she had hidden since childhood rushed upon her. Whenever grandpa, who lived with her family, was drunk and alone with the little girls for whom he was babysitting, he would force them to do sexual things.
This went on for many years. “I told my mother what grandpa made us do, but she was too distracted with drinking. I was so ashamed and I went down the wrong road as I grew up.”
“And now here I was with these women who suffered the same thing. The Lord lifted me up and healed me. I stayed for the entire retreat and became an active member of Hope in God.”
Avina shared this and other memories over lunch with Dawn and Jo Vitek, one of the founding members of Divine Providence of South Dakota, the parent organization of Hope in God. Jo, also, is a survivor of child sexual abuse. In her case it was an uncle who abused her between the ages of four and nine.
She commented that “The Lord called me to this ministry shortly before I retired as Chief of Police of Watertown. Now this has become a full-time ministry.”
As we chatted over chili and grilled cheese sandwiches, Dawn said that one of her relatives who works in tribal law enforcement said that sexual violence against children is common on their reservation.
Also sex trafficking. “I know it’s happening,” Dawn commented, “My uncle said organized crime, especially the Mexican Mafia, along with drugs, our proximity to an interstate highway, and large groups of men working at nearby dairies have a devastating effect on our people.”
“Our girls are hooked on drugs and alcohol; then they are held against their will and sold again and again.”
This tragedy seems to be common knowledge. So why is nothing being done to stop it? We discussed the fear factor.
“No one will say anything because of shame and because it’s ingrained in our families and tribal culture; no one will accuse a relative,” commented Avina.
“It’s almost socially acceptable,” added Dawn. “We need to break the cycle of victimization. We never learned to set boundaries. It’s almost like an expectation, not if it’s going to happen but when.”
From her past experience in law enforcement, Jo notes the conflicts of overlapping jurisdictions, the lack of resources and the shortage of trained personnel.
“Tribal police do the best they can, but they are overwhelmed with a continuing stream of crimes and emergencies. They are forced to function reactively; there is no time for proactive programs and strategies.”
This seems like a bleak and hopeless situation; however, these courageous women of Divine Providence are hopeful and are pursuing specific healing strategies for a safer, happier future for children and young people.
“I’m retired now and live on the reservation again,” said Avina. I want to start a circle of hope to help others, especially the children. I will speak out; I am no longer ashamed. It was not my fault.”
“Sexual violence against children cannot continue. In my family alone, five generations now have experienced childhood sexual violence. Now it’s down to my great grandchildren. This has to stop. The Lord pushed me up to help others and I will.”
Jo, with funding assistance, founded Hope, Healing, and Hoofprints, an equine therapy program for children and youth who are recovering from sexual violence. The women who mentor them are themselves survivors of childhood sexual violence, thus ensuring a compassionate and understanding environment.
Native Americans believe the horse to have strong spiritual power. Hence, it is believed that the horse will lead individuals in the right direction. The horse’s spirit is believed to be able to assist others in understanding their place in the circle of life.
Dawn lives on the reservation and teaches young people to speak up if they or their friends experience abuse. She works to make victim assistance accessible to all.
When asked about the role of spirituality in healing sexual trauma, Dawn responded enthusiastically, “Yes, yes, yes, whatever your religious beliefs are, pray, ask people to pray for you and over you and with you. Go to healing rituals if you find them helpful. Talk to tribal elders and grandmothers. We want to help. We all want to help you find the right road.”
If you want to know more about these amazing women and their work to protect Native women and children from violence, contact S. Teresa Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more, watch the video: Reach to End Sex Trafficking in Native American Communities