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Native Americans Turn To 'Safe Stars' For Help With Sexual Assaults

The Wind River Reservation, pictured here, is trying to increase reports and treatment of sexual assault with new practices that encourage cultural sensitivity to better serve survivors.
Karl Gehring
Denver Post via Getty Images
The Wind River Reservation, pictured here, is trying to increase reports and treatment of sexual assault with new practices that encourage cultural sensitivity to better serve survivors.

On the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming, there's not a single trained sexual assault nurse examiner.

Northern Arapaho tribal member Millie Friday saw how devastating that lack could be when her own daughter was raped by a close relative. Friday was left with no choice but to take her daughter to a hospital off the reservation.

"We went straight to the emergency room and from the emergency room, the FBI was contacted," Friday says. "So she never even had that choice of what she wanted to do. It was just straight in."

Friday says even standard exam procedures can traumatize victims further, like her daughter being abruptly asked to remove her clothes and put her feet in stirrups.

The cultural insensitivity of non-tribal hospitals leads a lot of women not to report, Friday says. And without official reports, there's no way to bring charges.

But Friday thinks more women might report with the help of an organization called Safe Stars.

"If we had had this available to us, this is the way we would have went," Friday says.

Safe Stars is a national group that allows victims to call a respected tribal woman in the community for confidential emergency care and evidence collection. The idea is the brain child of Hallie Bongar White, an attorney for the Southwest Center for Law and Policy.

"Several years ago, we realized that 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," Bongar White says.

Bongar White explains that volunteers take a 40-hour course to train to become sexual assault first responders.

"They're able to photograph injuries, use buccal swabs," Bongar White says. "If there's clothing with semen on it, they're able to package all the evidence."

The question is, will more reports turn into more convictions?

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Jacobson supports the Safe Star cause and prosecutes rapes on Wind River. But she worries about using evidence collected by volunteers.

"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," Jacobson says.

But even if Safe Stars can't get more convictions, Jacobson says it'll do something equally important: give victims a circle of respected women to protect them.

Since her daughter's attack, Northern Arapaho Millie Friday has been training to become a Safe Star volunteer herself.

The FBI specially designed a black metal box just for Safe Stars to use in the field. In addition to emergency contraceptive pills, Friday also plans to stock her kit with traditional healing plants she can offer rape victims.

"I would add sweetgrass and I'd even add cedar and then sage is good too," Friday says.

She would offer them immediately following an assault to calm victims so they can make hard decisions.

"Having that access to our culture, I feel that's what we bring too is that holistic idea of healing and using our culture to heal them," Friday says.

Friday believes these kind of cultural therapies will lead to better evidence collection, more convictions and to the real goal: stopping the cycle of rape culture that has haunted tribes for generations.

Copyright 2015 Wyoming Public Radio

Melodie Edwards graduated with an MFA from the University of Michigan on Colby Fellowship where she received two Hopwood Awards in fiction and nonfiction. Glimmer Trainpublished “Si-Si-Gwa-D” in 2002 where it was one of the winners of their New Writers fiction contest. She has published stories in South Dakota Quarterly, North Dakota Review, Michigan Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorseand others. She is the recipient of the Doubleday Wyoming Arts Council Award for Women. “The Bird Lady” aired on NPR's Selected Shorts and Prairie Schoonernominated the story for a Pushcart Prize. She has a story upcoming in an anthology of animal stories, published by Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of "Hikes Around Fort Collins," now in its third printing. She is circulating Outlawry,a novel about archeology theft in the 1930's with publishing houses. She is currently working on a young adult trilogy about a secret society of crows and ravens.