Norma Rendon has seen too many women blame themselves for being raped. But women need to learn to report the crime to police, she said, and understand the rape is not their fault.
"Too often, they are not being reported," said Rendon, a women's advocate at Cangleska, a shelter on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. "There is so much shame that comes with being a victim."
Only one in five adult women report being raped to the police.
While more than 17 million women have been raped in their life, according to a Department of Justice 2006 report, American Indian women reported the highest numbers of rape of any racial or ethnic group in the United States, at a rate 2.5 times higher than the national average. The FBI reports that women in Alaska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Washington, Minnesota and Colorado are among the most-raped in the country. Each state has a significant population of Indian women.
Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights organization, has spent two years researching sexual assaults in urban and reservation areas. Amnesty officials have scheduled an April 24 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The following day, organization leaders will release a report titled, "USA: Maze of Injustice The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence."
A reprieve from the violence seems distant. The 2005 Violence Against Women Act authorized Congress to spend $50 million annually on sexual assault services, which have never been funded.
Meanwhile, women advocates agree assault rates continue to escalate. Already, one in three Indian women will be raped in her lifetime, according to a 1999 report from the Bureau of Justice statistics.
Tess Curley on Montana's Flathead Reservation is especially concerned at rising numbers of sexual assaults and at the age of victims. Thirty-three percent of women are raped between the ages of 12 and 17.
"It's increasing more, especially on our reservation," said Curley, who works for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' crime-victim advocate program. "And they are beginning to target our youth. The positive thing is they (girls) are coming in and reporting this more and saying, â€˜This happened to me.' "
Sexual assault penalties vary state to state. In Montana, a woman who has been raped has 10 years to report it. If a girl or teenager is raped, she has 10 years starting from her 18th birthday.
The Cangleska shelter hired its first full-time worker in February to work specifically with sexual assault victims on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where women have had to drive 120 miles for aid in Rapid City, S.D., now ranked fourth in the nation for most rapes per capita.
The shelter has since acquired rape kits to collect samples from victims and to fill out reports.
"In many of the cases they were raped in our border towns," said Rendon, referring to cities near the reservation. The U.S. Justice bureau reports that the majority of violent crimes against Indian women are committed by white men.
Not only is it important to report sexual assaults, women should seek a support group, said Rendon. Mothers also are encouraged to consider how physical and sexual assaults against them affects their children.
A National Institute of Justice report shows 64 percent of children had witnessed abuse against their mothers by age 3. Youths, ages 12-18, of sexually abused mothers showed more depression and had more behavioral problems than children of mothers who had not been sexually assaulted.
Rebecca St. George, a women's advocate with Mending the Sacred Hoop, in Duluth, Minn., is working with local police on documenting sexual assaults. While she reaches out to assist women, she also counts herself among the victims.
"I was raped a couple of times," St. George said. "The first time I was at a party. I had never had sex before. I went with a guy to his car to get some beer. It was cold in northern Minnesota. He invited me to the front seat of his car and he raped me. I was shocked and confused and didn't even identify it as rape until three years later."
The Ojibwe woman said she was raped a second time after drinking too much alcohol and passing out. Rape occurs when sexual intercourse occurs without consent. "It never occurred to me to report any of those to anyone."
St. George didn't go to the police, but she said simply reporting it can be therapeutic. "For some women, it's incredibly healing just to get the guy charged, whether there's a prosecution or not," she said. "It's powerful to make a public statement that, 'What he did to me is wrong.'
"By my silence, I certainly allowed them to continue," she said. "It's not a guilt thing, but it's true. I didn't do anything to stop them from raping the next person."