MISSION — The survivors, advocates and community members sat around tables in a large room at Wildhorse Resort & Casino on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

On the walls around them were the words of people who, through a year-and-a-half-long project, shared their messages and stories about domestic and sexual violence on tribal land. One message read:

“Maybe with more awareness for victims they will find the inner spirit to report and stand against their families to protect against the next victim of this. But it will take culture change as it is generational and has had the blind of eye of change for so very very long.”

A group of at least 30 people gathered at the casino on a rainy Friday, Nov. 19, to hear the results of the project from Family Violence Services, a tribal public safety program dedicated to helping survivors of violence on the reservation.

“It took listening to you, our people in the community, to pull this together,” said Desireé Coyote, an abuse survivor, advocate and enrolled tribal member who manages Family Violence Services.

Survey prompts response from community

The survey involved 86 community members and 70 people who work for tribal entities. The results showed that survivors of sexual violence on the reservation don’t trust authorities, fear retaliation if they talk and fear friends and family won’t believe them or would shame them.

“It makes it an even more painful process if you can’t turn to those who are closest to you,” said Dr. Diane Gout, an evaluator from Maine who, along with Coyote, spearheaded the project.

More than half of respondents, most of whom are women, said they are “very aware” of sexual violence occurring in their community, and more than a third said the violence has become worse over time, the survey data showed.

From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., speakers talked about the survey results and the long history of abuse and violence on the reservation. Community members and survivors spoke about solutions they’d like to see and how they want their voices heard. Some shared their own experiences with the people around them.

“It’s going to take a while before people realize this exists,” said Althea Wolf, a survivor who spoke at the event. Wolf, who helped conduct the survey, works for the tribes’ First Foods Policy program.

Wolf said she was glad to see people speaking about their personal experiences at the casino, but noted that the turnout was small compared to events about things like substance abuse. To her, that shows a continued unwillingness for people to confront the violence against Native American women that has long plagued tribal land — what she called a “foundation of distrust.”

“It feels like we’re stuck as a community,” Wolf said.

But Wolf said the words of women coming forward about their own experiences, including those in her own family, empower her. She nodded to Coyote as an inspiration.

“Their legacies are a source of strength for me,” she said.

‘I need help’

A growing body of research shows Native American women are disproportionately victims of violence. Nearly half of all Native American women have suffered physical or sexual violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But those totals remain rough estimates. Data about violence on tribal land went unreported for decades due to layers of bureaucratic and jurisdictional problems, including disagreements among local or federal agencies concerning who should investigate. And what data is available today remains limited. Indigenous advocates say the actual rates of violence are likely much higher.

Before 2014, when the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation became one of the first tribes to begin prosecuting non-Indians for domestic violence against Native Americans on the reservation, many non-Native perpetrators could commit acts of violence on the reservation and walk free, volunteers and advocates said.

Several Native American women at the event said they became involved in domestic and sexual violence services because of their own lived experiences and the experiences of their loved ones.

“I’m grateful,” Eugena Stacona, a survivor and former assistant director of education for the tribes, said of the event. “Maybe now, more people will come and say, ‘I need help’ … Even though it’s hard.”

Growing up in a housing project on the reservation, she remembered when there was no domestic violence safe house nearby. She also worked at the Mission Market, where she’d see countless women with bruises on their faces. Some wore sunglasses to cover up the abuse, she said.

“There wasn’t anywhere for them to go,” said Stacona, who, at 56, learned on the morning of the event that she had earned her doctorate from Capella University.

Stacona said the region needs more shelters for domestic violence victims. She said workplaces, and law enforcement in particular, need increased empathy training when it comes to dealing with victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Extending a hand

The day concluded with conversations about healing from trauma, remarks from tribal leader Leo Stewart that brought tears to the eyes of attendees, and a closing prayer and song.

“It’s our story,” Stewart said from the front of the room.

“We like to sit in a corner and not share a story that might help somebody else,” he said, adding, “What we can do today is teach our loved ones ... It’s just extending a hand.”

Wolf badgered her kids for weeks to attend the event, so they would hear the stories of people like her. She even contacted their school to ask if they could miss a day. As they walked into the room on Nov. 19, they noticed the writing posted to the wall.

“That’s our community talking to us,” Wolf said to them.

They were silent.

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Reporter primarily covering government and public safety in Umatilla and Morrow County.

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