Tribal meeting focuses on violence against womenAGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. (AP) — Officials at a women’s shelter on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Indian Reservation told top federal prosecutors from the Dakotas Friday that violence against women continues to be a forbidden topic for most families.
AGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. (AP) — Officials at a women’s shelter on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Indian Reservation told top federal prosecutors from the Dakotas Friday that violence against women continues to be a forbidden topic for most families.
Most women who end up at the shelter had no idea it was an option before getting there, said Julie Watts, director of the Women’s Circle.
“Because the abuse has always been so hush-hush, so is the shelter,” Watts said to U.S. Attorneys Brendan Johnson of South Dakota and Timothy Purdon of North Dakota.
Johnson and Purdon have scheduled periodic meetings with tribal leaders and others at reservations in their respective states to talk about public safety. The Sisseton-Wahpeton reservation is located mostly in northeast South Dakota, but also covers a small strip in North Dakota.
The Women’s Circle can be found among a row of identical-looking houses in Agency Village, which is headquarters for Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. Both state and federal sources fund the shelter.
Watts said the No. 1 issue for the shelter is lack of space. It has room for 11 women, although shelter officials make due when there are children to house.
“Not too long ago we had about four or five kids here,” she said, looking up at the ceiling from her basement office. “You could hear pitter-patter all over the place.”
Women are allowed to stay in the shelter for six months, Watts said. Many of them are “shelter hoppers” who keep moving to avoid their abusers, she said.
Justice Department statistics show that each female American Indian baby born in the United States has a one-in-three chance of being sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Sophia Brown, the shelter manager, believes the number is higher.
“Most cases go unreported,” Brown said. “They are often times ashamed and embarrassed and don’t know how to come forward.”
When victims agree to pursue a case, they often are intimidated by family members and others when it goes to court, Brown said.
Johnson and Purdon said their offices can pursue assault charges that involve weapons or serious injuries, but other cases wind up in tribal court.
“When Brendan and I come together for something like this, we can help raise awareness about this issue, not just in Indian country, but across the states,” Purdon said. “You walk out after spending that time with the people who are working in the trenches and it’s humbling.”
Violence against women is “not an American Indian problem, it is an American problem,” Purdon said.
Johnson said he was energized by Friday’s visit.
“It provides me with hope,” he said. “You meet so many people who are so committed to public safety and the lives of women in their communities.”