Culture of sexual abuse infiltrates life on Native American reservations

Ashley Bloemhof- Staff Writer

LaPrincia first encountered sexual assault at age five. Her mother – who LaPrincia believed to be her grandmother, at the time – had agreed to babysit the young girl. Though the woman treated her kindly at first, minutes later her mother spoke louder and louder, becoming more agitated as the decibels rose. Her demeanor confused the girl. Shortly into the babysitting, people that LaPrincia did not know began to enter the house in the name of alcohol.

“I had never been around a drunk person before,” said LaPrincia, recalling her mother’s stench.

Her mother eventually drank herself unconscious and fell asleep behind a closed bedroom door, lying motionless on the mattress. As the small gathering dwindled, LaPrincia checked her mother’s breathing. Returning to her post in front of the TV set, she found her mother’s boyfriend, who had not yet left the house, in the room with her. The 40-year-old man told LaPrincia that he would watch her until her dad picked her up. She thought nothing of the arrangement.

But then, the man molested her.

“It felt like it went on forever…” said LaPrincia.

In separate conversations with two Native American women about sexual abuse, Amy Keahi, Director and Staff Mentor at ATLAS in Sioux Center, IA, asked the women what percentage of young girls have been molested or sexually abused on the reservation.

“Oh, 100 [percent],” both women answered. “Every one of them.”

LaPrincia understands the tribulations of sexual abuse– she grew up in the pain, and she endured the evil—not once, but twice.

At the age of 12, LaPrincia suffered rape at the hands of her first cousin, whom she had treated like a sibling before that time. Lana, LaPrincia’s older sister and motherly figure, raised LaPrincia and her nieces and nephews to treat their first cousins as family, as brothers and sisters. Yet, LaPrincia always felt her cousins acted as if no relation existed between them. Betrayal’s blow culminated when LaPrincia’s first cousin, then a young man of roughly 17 years, raped her and impregnated her with his child. The girl had fought and struggled against the man, but his older, leaner frame soon overpowered her own strength.

When Lana found out about the pregnancy, she took LaPrincia off the reservation so her younger sister could deliver the baby away from people’s talk. After leaving the reservation, LaPrincia lost the child, and a storm of emotion began to stir within her. While she felt embarrassed by her pregnancy and the cause of it, she also felt the child’s loss. She had imagined the newborn’s tiny fingers, the baby’s pudgy toes. The child also would have proven that the rape did happen and would have silenced those who did not believe that LaPrincia’s own relative, a first cousin, had victimized her. But ultimately, the infant held infinitely more worth than any symbol of proof.

LaPrincia’s story resembles that of many Native American girls. Speaking to incidents of rape on the reservation, LaPrincia said, “It happened to every girl that I met, and I met a lot of girls.”

In communities frequented by cases of sexual abuse, another threat looms nearby: human trafficking. Yumi Suzuki, a former USD Assistant Criminal Justice professor, discussed her research on sex trafficking in a 2014 interview with South Dakota Public Broadcasting. Suzuki

said, “In this state (South Dakota), Native women and children are at higher risk than any other racial groups, so trafficking is actually happening on the reservations.”

Though LaPrincia did not experience trafficking firsthand, she says it is present on the reservation. Shortly before her 18th birthday, LaPrincia met a woman selling women to workers from Mexico who came to the reservation to build a hospital. The woman would introduce the men to her “friends” and afterwards received a portion of ‘hook-up money’ for the arrangement. After having sex, the workers paid these women, who kept part of the payment while giving a certain amount to the woman. These women who sold themselves called the workers their ‘boyfriends,’ thinking the men held actual interest in them, and, because she helped them make money, these women viewed this woman as their friend.

LaPrincia cannot fathom why these women believe this woman, who is profiting off of their sexual performances, is their friend. She does believe, though, that most of the women involved in trafficking on the reservation “chose that life because they need the money.”

Roughly four years ago, less than a week after she welcomed her daughter iLiana into the world, LaPrincia moved away from the reservation, vowing never to return. She now lives in Sioux County with her daughter, who turns four in February. LaPrincia admits that her parenting method revolves around overprotectiveness. “She loves people,” said LaPrincia of iLiana, “but I feel bad for her because I keep her from them.”

LaPrincia is determined to guard her daughter from the kind of past she had to endure, a past that Native American women and children face on a daily basis. In light of American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month, the nation would do well to consider not only the history of these peoples but also the current culture that dominates life on the reservation.

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