My mother told me about a presentation she saw that mentioned how one kind person can make all the difference to a victim of sexual assault. This stood out to me—that one act of kindness from one person could have such a profound effect on someone in the midst of trauma. I thought of an article I had read about infants in a Romanian orphanage who had no meaningful human contact, no mother to rock them to sleep, no father to comfort them when they were sick. The orphans who were continually unstimulated by any meaningful human contact would sometimes roll over and just pass away, some say from heartache.
A mother’s soft voice or the reassuring whisper of a father to a child is often not heard by some children in Indian country. Often, women in Indian country suffer through sexual violence without any meaningful human contact. Like the infant that turns to the wall and dies, so does part of the woman or man who is victimized. Women and children in Indian country are statistically more likely to suffer acts of violence and sexual assault than any other racial group in the United States. That distinction is a result of historical oppression picked up and internalized by our people, culminating in physical and sexual violence. It all starts with the disrespect prevalent in cartoons, movies, music, punch lines, workplaces and homes. But it’s time to stop ignoring it.
I have been honored to hear many enlightened women in Indian country speak about these issues with great conviction and understanding. I can remember listening to my mother and my aunties speak about the true beauty and awesome power that our life givers carry. One of the greatest gifts the creator gave to us as human beings was the ability to learn, the ability to forgive and the ability to change. When you look at what prevents our people from recovering—not just from the generational oppression pressed upon the chests of our women, men and children, but from addiction, domestic violence, grief, abuse, and sexual violence—you may find a common thread. We excuse and accept these types of violent behavior as normal. We have become a population of blind bystanders who fail to act, fail to understand and fail to accept our own responsibility in this assault on our families. Fortunately there are relatives who are standing up and calling attention to the mess we find ourselves in. They are delivering a message of change that is beginning to gain momentum.
I have had the honor of working with some amazing people in my job as a special investigator of crimes against women and children. These women, men and children suffered from the ultimate offenses at the hands of loved ones. They are amazing not only because they survived but because they survived in spite of having to stand alone, outnumbered and ignored.
One woman I know was so beaten and bruised her spirit had been torn to pieces. She held herself together using what she had been taught: denial, drugs, self-loathing and shame. Her spirit, mind and body had suffered every humiliation and punishment a person could take. As she revealed that she was an addict, a victim and a willing participant in her own nightmare, it was hard to remember that there was a beautiful woman beneath her negative behaviors and poor choices.
Sometimes people in helping professions may unwittingly contaminate their service with their own standards and biases. They may label the victim as uncooperative or unsuitable. This leads the victim to being dismissed or overlooked because she is a disadvantaged, drug-addicted, uneducated, woman from Indian country. She is often treated as if she has no value, and that is the worst blow of all—the minute she, too, believes she is not worth a kind word or positive energy. The point when we as helpers become “us” and the victims become “them” is the beginning of our participation in the oppression.
Who is to blame? Is it the offender who abuses his or her family? Is it the non-offending parent that continues to stay? Is it the childhood of either one of these people? Or is it the relatives who sit back and watch? Or, perish the thought, is it us when we say, “That ain’t any of my business”?
We can either continually re-traumatize each other or decide to be part of the answer. We have been left with the hollow truth that we participate in our own oppression. We add to our relative’s pain when we ostracize a victim because of their disclosures, when we withhold friendships and friendly glances because we are uncomfortable. The answer lies within. We must turn to our ability to learn from mistakes, to change our own behaviors and to forgive ourselves, each other and those who hurt us.
Karonienhawi Thomas is a St. Regis Mohawk tribal police special investigator of crimes against women and children, including sex crimes, child abuse and neglect. She is a mother of two.