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Breaking Silence and Finding Justice

by StrongHearts Native Helpline

Highest Rates of Child Abuse

Statistically, Native Americans experience the highest rates of violence in the country, and sadly, that includes cases of child abuse and neglect. As Native peoples, we know that violence was introduced by colonizers. It is not shameful that we were subjugated by colonizers; nor that we continue to endure violence predominantly at the hands of non-Natives. Our healing has only just begun and we speak our truth so that we, and others, may find healing.

TRIGGER WARNING: This personal story includes graphic content that some readers may find distressing.

Hania’s story

Born on a Navajo reservation, she was named “Hania” meaning spirit warrior. It is customary for Native peoples to honor their ancestors with children bearing a name with purpose and promise. So it was with Hania, a little girl with the spirit of a warrior.

“Every weekend, we were left alone to fend for ourselves,” said Hania. “Adults would go to one house and leave their children at another so they could drink.” It might not have been a bad thing to do for a couple of hours, but most times the youngins were left alone for an entire weekend.

“Our cousins would come over and we’d play “house”,” said Hania who explained that without supervision, the children would reenact what they saw in everyday life. It was like a glimpse into the past and the future at the same time.

Grandmother Mother

In Indian Country, it is not uncommon for children to be raised by their grandparents or even aunties and uncles. Such was the case for Hania who spent more time with her grandmother than at home. She remembers that she was not alone. Her eldest brother also lived with her grandmother. He was his mother’s firstborn son who was conceived through rape. When his mother was to wed, her new husband would not accept another man’s child leaving him to be raised by his grandmother.

Trauma Bond

Hania’s brother didn’t understand why he couldn’t live with his mother and siblings. He only understood that he was an outcast. He grew up hating his mother for leaving him every time they came to visit. His feelings of hurt turned to frustration and rage. It was the response of his spirit being crushed under the weight of feeling unwanted. Despite his outbursts of anger and rage, his grandmother still loved and cared for him. In the wake of domestic and sexual violence, trauma bonds are formed - cyclical, normalized, seemingly unbreakable.

“My grandmother had that trauma bond with my uncle too,” said Hania. She explained that her uncle lived only a few hours away and would come back to the reservation to visit, drink and then physically abuse her grandmother. He also abused his wife and his daughters and if that wasn’t bad enough, he was a sexual predator who took advantage of young women and children, raping them and robbing them of their innocence. This sexual violence was accepted as normal, so they silently endured the abuse. They didn’t know that their silence protected him.

Grandmother’s Help

It was just another weekend, like all of the rest, when Hania spent the night with her grandmother while her cousins, aunts and uncles began their weekend binge. Whenever anyone got out of hand, grandma was depended upon to go pick up her sons before they got into trouble.

“My uncle was intoxicated and it was my grandmother’s first instinct to go and help him in any way that she could,” said Hania. “I pleaded with her not to because he was going to beat her up. [It was just normal for grandma to care for her children despite the potential risk].”

When grandmother returned, Hania was hiding under her mother’s car because she didn’t want to be near her uncle. Ultimately, she had to respect her grandmother who beckoned her to come back into the house. Her uncle was waiting and asked her to help him find some tools.

The Inevitable Rape

“I was just being helpful,” said Hania who went inside a vacant mobile home next door to her grandmother’s house where her uncle once lived. “I could hear my grandmother and my [other] uncle calling out mine and my uncle’s name. They were right outside of the mobile home where I was being raped.”

“When he finished, he walked away like nothing happened and told me not to tell anyone,” Hania continued. “I ran to my grandmother and uncle and told them that he raped me. I was eight years old when I said those words.”

Tribal police were called and her uncle was arrested. From then on, Hania was told not to speak of the rape. She knew that her mother and grandmother had also been victims of rape and didn’t know how to navigate finding justice - they only knew that a price had to be paid.

Ostracism After Justice

“Other women had been sexually abused by him, but I was the only person who spoke up. I’m the only person who put someone in prison for sexual violence,” said Hania who knew what had happened to her was wrong, but she didn’t know that she too would pay a price for justice.

“We were ostracized by cousins, aunts and uncles because this person had to go to jail,” said Hania. “We used to have birthday parties, family reunions and camping trips. Whenever I did come forward, that’s when the family fell apart. That’s why no one speaks up.”

Transparency and Healing

Hania grew up knowing that transparency is lacking on Tribal reservations where Native peoples are reluctant, if not forbidden, to speak out against domestic and sexual violence.

“Fear of reputation, accountability, not being believed and fear of change [all contribute to women being silent]. I experienced harassment and being verbally abused by my cousins. They told everyone at school - told them that I had sex with an older man,” she explained adding that her mother didn’t know what to do.

Her mother packed her bags and took Hania to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico where Hania’s older sisters lived. Hania's father was left behind because he too was abusive. This new life away from the reservation was the beginning of a long healing journey that would eventually prepare Hania for her work as a victim-survivor advocate and as a parent.

“I think being transparent with people around you is very empowering and maybe being transparent is what people need. It’s important for me to have those conversations with my children because it's part of safety planning,” Hania concluded.

“My mother struggled with alcoholism. Nobody has sat her down and taught her how to heal. My grandfather was abusive toward my grandma. It was normal to see someone get beat up. No one ever told her that this wasn’t okay.”

Silence No More

Native people only speak of trauma when ready to heal. We use our voice to remove trauma from our bodies with the spoken word. Though our voices have been silenced for centuries, our people still gather in trusted community driven healing spaces. We participate in sweat lodges, vision quests, sundance and pow-wows and other avenues seeking a path toward healing. It’s our way of speaking to the next of many generations to come - that despite the reality of domestic and sexual violence - we are survivors.

Native Americans use storytelling to share oral history, to pass down teachings to younger generations and to provide a space for healing. Talking circles can be a source of therapy where victim-survivors find common ground and help each other to navigate domestic and sexual violence. It is in these safe spaces where the need to keep quiet dissolves and transparency can be transformative.

One-by-one, StrongHearts Native Helpline listens to stories of victim survivors with the hope of leading the way to safety and sovereignty. We believe that healing can begin with storytelling. That is why it is so important to lift their voices - especially in Indian Country where secrecy and shame are deeply embedded into the construct of life on a reservation where colonizers - the dominant society - ravaged the land and people of Turtle Island.

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, StrongHearts Native Helpline can help. To speak one-one-one with an advocate, call or text 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483); or to chat online click on the chat icon on this page.

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