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Know the West

An open letter to victims of sexual abuse in Indian Country

‘We believe you. You are courageous.’


Editor’s note: Out of respect for the author’s vision for this letter, High Country News will not name the referenced perpetrator. Those seeking background can read about the case here.

The past two weeks have been very difficult for many people in Indian Country. When a celebrity is identified as a predator, there is a terrible mix of emotions, including anger, sadness, and a deep sense of betrayal. As victim advocates, we offer this letter as a message to all of those who are silently struggling. We offer prayers of love for you all, and we want to provide validation and support to everyone who has experienced sexual abuse or violence. We pray for all who read this letter, for your continued growth, and that you are able to be the person you’re meant to be.

We believe you.

You are courageous.

We love you.

You are strong.

What happened to you is not your fault.

If you have reported the perpetrator, you have done one of the hardest, most courageous things you will ever do. By disclosing what has happened to you, and describing how you were harmed and had your trust broken, you inspire all of us. You may — with good reason — believe that the world is an unsafe place. We honor you for not staying silent. 

We honor you for not staying silent. 

We, as victim advocates, know that reporting often leads to legal intervention. At the same time, blame is too often placed on the victim for reporting. There is often victim-blaming and victim-shaming, either by people who don’t know you, or — even worse — by the people you love. They may not even believe you.

We also want to include those who have not yet disclosed what happened to them. It may not be safe for you to talk about the abuse, because your home may not be a safe place. This is especially true for children and young adults, who can be at risk of danger when reporting. So if you haven’t disclosed what happened, know that there are safe advocates and adults ready to help; at the bottom of this letter, we have included a list of hotlines staffed by people who are ready to talk and who will believe you. And please remember this, beautiful one: No matter what, we believe you; in two months, two years, 20 years, 2,000 years, we will still believe you. 

This moment in your life will not define who you are now, nor will it define the person you can become in the future. That may be difficult to believe right now, but as survivors ourselves, we know that there is a journey of healing when you will reclaim your power. You can be whatever you want to be.

We know that there is a journey of healing when you will reclaim your power.

What happened to you is not your fault. The world may be chaotic right now and for months to come. Sometimes, adults do not want to know and cannot seem to comprehend what happened to you. They may even deny your truth. Even the person who hurt you may deny their own wrongdoing. But remember this: The perpetrator made a choice when they decided to exploit their power. They preyed on your vulnerability and relied on keeping you silent. Even when it was the perpetrator’s choice to commit sexual abuse, too many victims are often scrutinized more than the abuser is.

This is not right. 

It cannot continue.

For healing, there needs to be justice. 

We want our tribal laws and codes to hold perpetrators accountable, so that we don’t always have to rely on federal or state laws and their enforcers to provide justice. But no matter what, there must be consequences. Our tribal nations need to stand with victims. The responsibility for ensuring that there is an appropriate response to these crimes should never fall on the victim. 

We acknowledge that we do not yet live in a society that consistently reflects these values. It is OK to be angry when our protective systems fail us when we need them the most. The four of us are angry, too, because we have been saying the same things for so many years. This has happened to us, too, or to someone we love dearly. We are your aunties, grammas, uncles, grampas, but most of all, we are spiritual warriors, just like you. And we want systems and communities to hold the perpetrator accountable.

You can heal with the help of others who love and care about you. 

Rest assured, your story has been heard. You have a bright future. There are so many of us who love you and believe you; there are advocates and survivors who are here to listen to you and answer your questions. We know how courageous you are, and how courageous you will always be. 

With love from your victim advocate protectors.

Bonnie Clairmont

Sarah Deer

Lenny Hayes

Lonna Stevens-Hunter

If you need help or need to talk to a victim advocate, please contact the following organizations:

Bonnie Clairmont (Hochunk Nation), mother, grandmother and great grandmother, has been a powerful advocate, a skilled educator, and truth-teller for victims/survivors of violence for over 30 years.

Sarah Deer (Mvskoke) is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas. Her scholarship focuses on the intersection of victims' rights and federal Indian law.

Lenny Hayes (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) is owner and operator of Tate Topa Consulting, LLC and is currently in private practice specializing in Marriage Family Therapy. He has extensive training in mental and chemical health issues that impact the Two-Spirit/Native LGBTQ+ and Native community.

Lonna Stevens-Hunter (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota and Tlingit) has been a fierce advocate and protector for Native women and children for over 25 years, she upholds tribal sovereignty to respond to end violence against Native women and children.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.