Hope Conference reveals struggle and healing of child sexual abuse in Indian Country

Request a free consultation

BILLINGS — A two-day journey that began with openness of childhood sexual abuse, an epidemic that has tore the fabric of Indian Country communities for generations has been faced and ideals of healing had been launched for the future generations, at the 3rd annual Hope Conference, “Healing For Our People Everywhere – Seeking the Courage To Heal.”

At the opening morning Theda New Breast, Master Trainer and Facilitator of the Native Wellness Institute stated, “It doesn’t matter the number, but that you try your best in spreading the word of healing.”

Anna Whiting Sorrell, Billings Area Indian Health Director and keynote opening speaker of the conference, urged the group to fight the fight together, make difference and make a stand that the abuse in Indian communities would not be acceptable anymore.

“Until we look at the children who have been sexually abused and how it has effected them, we (Indian people) will never be healed,” Whiting Sorrell stated.

Cecilia Fire Thunder, nurse, grassroots community planner and the first woman to serve as the Oglala Sioux Nation President, said research shows that 87 percent of Native women in drug and alcohol treatment have been sexually abused.

“When you can name how you are feeling that’s a very good thing, because then you know what you have to do. It’s when you don’t know; you don’t know what to do. So when you can find it and identify it then you know what to do,” Fire Thunder advised during one of the break out sessions.

Fire Thunder spoke frankly of the private part of a woman (or man), stating it is a sacred part and the entryway for the next generation to come – bringing life. It should never be violated and should be a gift that is given – not taken, she added.

John Shuster, counselor, author and ex-Roman Catholic priest and board of director of The Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (SNAP) held a workshop “Healing Choices For Survivors of Abuse.”

Shuster lectured on history of the Roman Catholic Church sexual abuse on Indian Reservations in the Northwest and Great Plains area stating that most of the clergy that came to the Reservations were from Germany. Those who joined the seminary in Germany experienced sexual abuse in their lives and wanted to escape by joining the “priesthood” and ended up being sent to rural areas where they began perpetrating abuse on children just as had been done to them.

The abuse was brought over from what was happening in that other country, he stated.

Psychology research proves that one who is perpetrated upon has a high probable rate of becoming a perpetrator.

However healing is possible and the evil curse can be reversed, says Fire Thunder and several conference facilitators.

“It is an individual journey of healing to be traveled by yourself to figure it out…and on your journey you must let it go,” she said. “And quit labeling yourself,” she said was vital to letting it go and moving on.

“When do you graduate from our (crap)? We are always a “survivor” or in “recovery,” she included. “It something you learned, and you have to unlearn it.”

Fire Thunder candidly stated that although the unimaginable abuse happened in boarding schools and missions in the history of Native people, it is still going on.

“It’s not going on in our institutions – it is going on in our homes.”

Melissa Merrick, Director of Spirit Lake Victim Assistance and survivor of child sexual abuse revealed that perpetrators our normally people we know. “It might be an uncle, cousin, son, dad or anyone and we can’t ignore it anymore.”

Merrick said sending them to jail is not the complete answer because they do come back.

“My whole life I never felt protected. I was told as a kid, and as a teen and an adult and no one listened,” she said holding back tears could not be contained in the group.

She said to not try to understand why they (perpetrators) do this. “It is a mental health issue.”

In her line of work she has learned that incest happens quite a bit and children in alcoholic home settings are vulnerable and predators seek them out. “When parents pass out and drunks are around – it happens more than you know.”

In order to heal from the historical and current trauma, people in the community need to bring it out in the open, talk about it and believe the one child or adult that their story is true, said Merrick.

“Do not tell them, ‘Oh they wouldn’t do that to you.’ It is like telling the child that they don’t matter.”

Merrick said reactions of hushing up the child or victim could be a sign of a survival tactic to hide their own trauma. “Why is this mom not acknowledging this? Because the mom needs to be healed.”

“Children do not make up these experiences. If they talk to you about it or ask questions that are way out there – don’t freak out. It is an understandable reaction to freak out but it is damaging to do that,” she added. “They will not disclose what happened to them if they get that reaction.”

She said when a child sees a mom or family member crying they withdraw and feel like it is because of them and the trauma stays within.

“Remain calm or leave the room if you have to and let another adult listen. Remember, it’s about them, the child.”

Treat the child with dignity and respect, she said. Because when the respect is not there, the child feels like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ They carry on the feeling they do not deserve good things.

As a child of sexual abuse Merrick said she cried and prayed and only wanted to be healthy but did not know how.

She said it took years of removing the layers the sexual abuse trauma left on her young growing soul. “Through that struggle I found the Creator and humbled myself to my knees and asked for healing.”

Fire Thunder, Merrick and New Breast shared with the group that when trauma occurs in a life – the spirit leaves or hides.

In healing it is essential to “call back the spirit,” New Breast said.

Merrick said one of the first steps of healing in her community is launching prayer circles. “Some victims don’t even know how to pray. But we help them and they get to the point they feel they can.”

Ken Bear Chief, Tamaki Law paralegal who works with an Investigator and Victim Liaison on the Jesuit child clergy sex abuse cases and helps bring justice and accountability to the abuser said, “The longer they (victims) keep that (abuse) in, the sicker they are.”

The journey Fire Thunder explained is in the forgiveness and letting it go.

She said in her own journey she has to learn to make a choice to balance her life or live in misery. “I had to tell myself, ‘Okay, let it go and be a balanced Lakota woman’ – everyone has that choice,” she said.

Although it is an individual journey of choice, Fire Thunder said each person should reach out and help one another heal.

She said, “Letting go” is about the individual person – not letting the perpetrator off thee hook, but letting yourself off the hook of blame. It is not the victim’s fault.

Shuster says survivors of abuse not only have the challenge to overcome the “traumatic amnesia” that is the result of the violent sexual, physical and emotional assaults suffered but they also have the right to remember what happened to them to achieve justice and begin true lasting healing.

“Traumatic amnesia is repressing the violence and degrading memories of abuse. You deserve to be in full control of your life. Do whatever you can to remember,” he tells victims.

“Because thought this trauma your spirit leaves and you want to get it back,” he added.

Three phases of healing Shuster teaches through the SNAP organization are three ideals he brings to mind.

He says first to decide if you want to change your life for the better and find a safe place to make it happen.

Then seek professionals and create a group of people to help you.

Lastly, re-socialize your life based on realizations you have discovered and decision you have made.

It is a hard challenge he says but renewing your mind and changing your associations in life is key.

He says a form of psychological intervention is to not tell people what to do, but to ask questions about themselves. “Give them the power of self-understanding.”

“By asking questions it respects one’s journey,” he says. “That’s how people grow, when they are respected,” Shuster added.

Respect has been sidestepped over the years in Indian communities regarding sexual abuse. For more than a hundred years, Native American children were forced into federal or Catholic boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into “American” culture. Great numbers of those children suffered serious emotional, physical and sexual trauma that had devastating effects on each community with harsh lasting repercussions of continued sexual abuse and drug and alcohol abuse.

Breaking the silence is one-way justice and healing is being attained for the victims, according to Tamaki Law.

Vito de la Cruz, Tamaki Law trial attorney who has been known as a “Grunt with an attitude,” says each one fighting the battle of healing take on that label as well. It is a cultural war that is being fought he said.

De la Cruz said tribal court systems should take on the cases for the people for a fair judicial process for tribal victims.

“Instead of disconnected and disinterested people and judges sitting in the courts, let the high paying church lawyers be judged in the tribal court for once.”

In September of 2011, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribal council passed a new childhood-sexual-abuse statute, which allows tribal members to file claims in their tribal court.

The Sisseton Wahpeton law is the first of its type in the country, De La Cruz, told the group.

He added that the tribal statute was instrumental in the $166-million settlement against the Jesuits for hundreds of former students who charged abuse at the boarding schools in the Northwest and Alaska.

“All tribes have criminal child-sex-abuse statutes, but this is the first civil one and allows plaintiffs whose cases have been dismissed in other jurisdictions to file in tribal court,” said De La Cruz, who added that both state and federal courts honor tribal court judgments.

“Bringing it out to the light of day and holding abusers accountable takes courage. And those who step forward should be praised, but it’s not like that in society. That’s why we are here. To help build new lives without all that toxicity in their lives,” Bear Chief said.

Sponsors for the Hope Conference were Tamaki Law, First Nations Women’s Alliance, Native Wellness Institute and Native American Center for Excellence.