Native Americans Turn To 'Safe Stars' For Help With Sexual Assaults One in three Native American women will be sexually assaulted during her life, and even fewer will actually report the crime, per the Justice Department. Female elders in Wyoming want to change that.
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Native Americans Turn To 'Safe Stars' For Help With Sexual Assaults

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Native Americans Turn To 'Safe Stars' For Help With Sexual Assaults

Native Americans Turn To 'Safe Stars' For Help With Sexual Assaults

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

One in three Native American women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime - that's according to the U.S. Justice Department. And only 1 in 3 of those will actually report the crime. Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards has the story of an effort to address that problem.

MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: On the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming, there's not a single trained sexual assault nurse examiner. Northern Arapaho tribal member Mille Friday saw how devastating that lack can be when her own daughter was raped by a close relative. Friday was left with no choice but to take her daughter to a hospital off the reservation.

MILLE FRIDAY: We went straight to the emergency room and from the emergency room the FBI was contacted. So she never even had that choice of what she wanted to do. It was just straight in.

EDWARDS: Friday says even standard exam procedures can traumatize victims.

FRIDAY: And then all of the re-victimization that happened in the hospital.

EDWARDS: Like her daughter being abruptly asked to remove her clothes and put her feet in stirrups. Friday says the cultural insensitivity of nontribal hospitals leads a lot of women not to report. And without official reports, there's no way to bring charges. But Friday thinks more women might report with the help of an organization called Safe Stars.

FRIDAY: If we had had this available to us, this is the way we would've went.

EDWARDS: Safe Stars is a national group that allows victims to call a respected tribal woman in the community for confidential emergency care and evidence collection. The idea is the brainchild of Hallie Bongar White, an attorney for the Southwest Center for Law and Policy.

HALLIE BONGAR WHITE: Several years ago, we realized that there was a huge disconnect between the volume of sexual violence in Indian country and the criminal justice, health care, social services and community responses to sexual violence.

EDWARDS: Bongar White explains that volunteers take a 40-hour course to train to become sexual assault first responders.

BONGAR WHITE: They are able to photograph injuries. They're able to use buccal swabs. If there's clothing with semen on it, they're able to package all the evidence.

EDWARDS: The question is will more reports turn into more convictions? Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Jacobson supports the Safe Star cause and prosecutes rapes on Wind River. But she worries about using evidence collected by volunteers.

KERRY JACOBSON: If you've got physical evidence being collected out of a Safe Star's car or home then there's going to be at least the specter of potential tainting.

EDWARDS: But Jacobson says even if Safe Stars can't get more convictions, it'll do something equally important - give victims a circle of respected women to protect them.

FRIDAY: OK, now, these are all locked so I can't remember if I left them. Oh, I did.

EDWARDS: Since her daughter's attack, Northern Arapaho Millie Friday has been training to become a Safe Star volunteer herself. She unlocks the black metal box specially designed by the FBI just for Safe Stars to use in the field.

FRIDAY: Here's the pill I was - the emergency contraceptive pill I was telling you about.

EDWARDS: So that's the morning-after pill there.

FRIDAY: Yes.

EDWARDS: Friday also plans to stock her kit with traditional healing plants she can offer rape victims.

FRIDAY: I would add sweet grass and I'd even add cedar and then sage is good, too.

EDWARDS: Good for ceremonies she can offer immediately following an assault to calm victims so they can make hard decisions.

FRIDAY: Having that access to our culture, I feel that that's what we bring too is that holistic idea of healing and using our culture to heal them.

EDWARDS: Friday says these kind of cultural therapies will lead to better evidence collection, more convictions and to the real goal of stopping the cycle of rape culture that has haunted tribes for generations. For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards in Laramie.

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