A Grim How-To Manual Steps In to Help Native American Women Where the Government Won’t
Two years ago, a young mother sat across from Charon Asetoyer in her office in Lake Andes, South Dakota. The mother had arrived at the shelter for battered women, where Asetoyer worked. She lived on the Yankton Sioux Reservation and was seeking refuge for herself and her 11-year-old daughter. Asetoyer, a Native woman herself, had been working on behalf of Native girls and women for more than two decades. In spite of her years of experience, one question the mother asked caught her off guard: “What should I tell my daughter when she’s raped?”
“It just got to me—it was so matter of fact: I have a daughter and she will be raped,” Asetoyer told TakePart.
Though the question was blunt, it made sense to her. One in three Native women report being raped in their lifetimes, according to the Department of Justice. For Native girls and women, Asetoyer said, sexual assault and rape is considered almost inevitable. Because of complicated jurisdictional laws that divide tribal and federal law, prosecuting non-Native perpetrators is so rare it is almost nonexistent.
To support girls and women who survive sexual assault and rape, Asetoyer and her colleagues at the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center on the Yankton Sioux Reservation have published an illustrated book called What to Do When You’re Raped: An ABC Handbook for Native Girls.
“We can’t wait for the federal government to come to the rescue or to do what they should have been doing all along,” Asetoyer told TakePart. “Because we have so little equal protection under the law, we need a community response and to provide some information that can be shared woman-to-woman, girl-to-girl.”
Asetoyer concedes that there are perpetrators within the Native community as well, but assaults by non-Native people are more common because of the lack of legal consequences.
“There are communities of commerce on our reservations—banks, supermarkets, bars, and casinos—and [non-Native] people come in,” Asetoyer said. “Farmers, truckers, ranchers, and sportsmen—they just feel they have a right to indulge in anything in any way they want to. These men can’t be arrested by tribal law enforcement.”
Federal prosecutors rarely take up such cases, as evidenced by Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a case now before the Supreme Court. The suit was brought after the U.S. attorney’s office in the state declined to press charges on behalf of a 13-year-old Choctaw boy who was allegedly assaulted by the non-Native manager of a Dollar General store on tribal land.
“We have young women who are afraid to report because they’re afraid of retaliation. They know no one will be arrested. No one will be convicted,” Asetoyer said.
That fear contributes to a culture of silence that NAWHERC hopes the book will break. The book’s main message to girls is that they are not alone and that a community of Native women understands and is waiting to help. It’s also a practical guide, offering information on the emergency contraceptive Plan B and how to get it from Indian Health Service clinics.
“We have too many young women who experience sexual assault and feel it is their fault,” said Asetoyer. “This is a community response, a matriarchal approach. Women need to step in and support each other.”