I had been visiting a friend that night and lost track of the time. When I realized it was past curfew, I decided to walk home. The path home was well-worn but poorly lit. About halfway there, I heard rustling coming from a nearby bush. Within seconds, he was on top of me, holding me down. I knew him. While groping me, he made it clear that he intended to have sex with me, whether I consented or not.
I screamed, “No!” over and over.
He muffled my cries by putting his hand over my mouth and nose until I couldn’t breathe. I fought him, but I was no match for a grown man. He hit me hard, repeatedly. The physical violence of the act of rape was excruciatingly painful. I felt like I was being stabbed and gutted from within. The pain was so terrible that I felt as though my spirit left my body and I was floating above myself—witnessing my own sexual assault. My soul cried out to God.
After he had finished, he uttered one final threat: “Tell them and I’ll do it again. They’ll never believe you anyway. I’ll say you wanted it.”
Then he got up and left without a second thought, as if he had just finished using the bathroom. I was fifteen years old.
Immediately after the assault, I was in shock. I couldn’t fully grasp what had just happened to me. Still, I managed to collect myself, wipe the tears from my cheeks, and stumble home. I took a shower, but it offered me no solace. I couldn’t get clean enough to wash away how dirty I felt inside.
I blamed myself. “There must have been something I did that made him rape me,” I thought.
I questioned whether he still would have attacked me if I was less attractive. I wondered if it had happened because I was wearing lipstick, or because there was a rip in my jeans just above the knee. The rape became my secret shame.
Sexual abuse and assault effects people differently. Following the attack, I struggled with depression, self- harm, and panic attacks. Something in me died and I became reckless. Yet I couldn’t kill the pain of the trauma I’d experienced, and all the alcohol in the world couldn’t drown the painful memories I wanted so desperately to forget: His smell on my clothes. How my blood tasted when I bit my tongue. The sneer on his face as I passed him on the street a month later.
As an American Indian woman who has fallen prey to sexual violence, I am not alone. There are thousands of other women in Indian country with personal stories of rape and sexual abuse that are much more tragic than mine. According to Amnesty International’s 2007 report, Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA, an American Indian woman is 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in her lifetime than any other race of women in the United States. More than 1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped in her lifetime.
In my case, the statute of limitations has long since passed—so let me serve as an example of what not to do. If you’ve been a victim of sexual violence, tell someone right away. If you don’t trust anyone, go to someone whose job it is to report violence—like a counselor, a doctor, a social worker, a police officer, or an advocate.
Know that if you’ve been the victim of a sex crime, it’s not your fault. It doesn’t matter where you were, what time it was, or what you were wearing. No one has a right to hurt you. Furthermore, the terrible act of violence committed against you does not have to define you. You are worthy of healing and there are people who can help you.
Having children renewed my sense of hope, but for years I was still a wounded individual. My sadness turned to bitterness, and I developed a hatred for men. I assumed that all men were the same, and that they only wanted one thing. I was also highly motivated to achieve what any man told me I could not.
I didn’t experience complete healing until I attended Sundance ceremony five years ago. For four days, I witnessed countless acts of selflessness and love through the personal sacrifice, spiritual devotion, and fervent prayers of not only women, but native men. I learned to respect native men again, as brothers. When I was freed from animosity toward men, I was able to forgive the man who assaulted me, and even myself.
While I’ve moved past the hurt, I will forever be tied to all other victims of sexual violence through mutual tragedy. I am the reservation child molested by her drunken uncle. I am the remains of a murdered native Jane Doe found in British Columbia. I am the young Dakota mother raped by calvary soldiers in a Nebraska concentration camp. Unfortunately, what a lot of Native people fail to realize is so are YOU. As native peoples, we are tied together by blood, culture, and community. Violence is a cancer in Indian Country whose harmful effects ripple far beyond the perpetrator and victim.
It’s time for us to stand together and say, “No more.”
Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all connected.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org