Tribal survivors of rape gather to ‘lift our sisters up’

Courageously she stood, a blanket around her shoulders. Roxanne Chinook wasn’t alone in the Tulalip Tribes’ Hibulb Cultural Center Longhouse.

More than 50 women and girls, elders to middle schoolers, crowded together on plank seats. For their ancestors, a longhouse was a place to hear stories. At Wednesday’s gathering, called “Lifting Our Sisters Up,” they listened and shared.

“The blankets are to cover you for protection,” said Deborah Parker, vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes.

Then Chinook told her harrowing story, an account of being raped — by a non-Indian — on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon.

“I am a survivor of 13 rapes,” said Chinook, who works for the Tulalips’ Legacy of Healing, a victims’ advocacy program. Years ago, she tried hiding her pain in a fog of substance abuse. “Why did I make myself so vulnerable? Many women you see in Indian country who are hard-drinking, those are women carrying that kind of pain,” Chinook said.

It was a piercing, personal memory. And a camera was rolling.

A French film crew was in the longhouse Wednesday working on a documentary that will air on the Canal Plus network. “It’s like the HBO of France,” said Sabrina Van Tassel, the filmmaker visiting Tulalip with camerman Cyril Thomas. Van Tassel said the short film will air on a French show called “Butterfly Effect,” which examines issues in other countries.

The film’s subject is the Violence Against Women Act, which U.S. senators voted Tuesday to reauthorize. It’s legislation first passed in 1994. The law includes money for prosecution of violent crimes against women.

Last year, House Republicans did not support its renewal. One big reason the House rejected the measure was a new provision that would allow tribal police and courts to pursue and try non-Indians who attack women on tribal land. Federal law enforcement has jurisdiction in such cases, but access is limited at the very least by distance.

Legislation passed Tuesday by the Senate includes the tribal provisions. The House is now expected to take up the Violence Against Women Act, and Parker is pushing for equal treatment of crimes that happen on Indian reservations.

Last April, the Tulalips’ vice chairwoman was in Washington, D.C., where she spoke at a press conference with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in support of the law, which died in 2012 without a House vote. Interviewed in December by Herald writer Rikki King, Murray said Parker has become “the voice and face” of the issue. “I know it’s taken a lot of courage on her part, and I know it’s making a difference,” Murray said.

As she did in the nation’s capital, Parker shared her own nightmarish stories in the longhouse Wednesday.

“My aunt was being abused when I was baby-sitting her children. She was brutally raped,” Parker said. All she could do, she said, was protect the children by hiding with them in a closet. Parker also remembers being raped as a small child. “I was the size of a couch cushion,” she said. “I was choked and I was raped. I tell my story so that others can receive healing,” she said.

Parker stood beside her teenage daughter, Kayah George, and said “I can place one more woman beside me, and one of us will be raped.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., quoted by The New York Times on Sunday, cited statistics showing that tribal women are two and a half times more likely than other American women to be raped, with 1 in 3 Indian women becoming victims of sexual assault.

The French film crew has also done interviews on the Rosebud and Yankton Sioux reservations in South Dakota. “A lot of people ask why, why would French people want to know about this?” said Van Tassel. “Why wouldn’t they?”

Among four honored witnesses to Wednesday’s gathering, which included traditional songs and prayers, was the Tulalip Tribal Court’s Chief Judge Theresa Pouley. The court is part of the Northwest Intertribal Court System, established in 1979.

Pouley is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “Let tribal court judges take care of crime on reservations. This isn’t about tribal court judges. This is about protecting our women,” Pouley said.

“I’m a Washington State Bar Association member. I should have to prove I’m competent or capable? Really? It’s time to stop having that conversation,” the judge said. “I never want to say to my granddaughter, ‘There’s a 1 in 3 chance you’ll be raped, sweetie.’”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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