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Alcohol-Facilitated Sexual Assault in Indian Country: An Introduction to the Issues

OVC and the Office on Violence Against Women collaborated to produce this four-video series, designed for criminal justice personnel, victim advocates, and allied professionals who work with victims of sexual assault in Indian Country. This video provides an overview of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault in Indian Country, including prevalence, historical trauma, and responses.

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SARAH DEER, JD, WILLIAM MITCHELL COLLEGE OF LAW, MUSCOGEE CREEK NATION OF OKLAHOMA: I would say I've talked to over 400 Native women who've been raped. Sexual assault is so common in some tribal communities that you will hear women say, you know, "I don't know anyone in my community who has not been a victim." It's not a matter of if you're raped, it's a matter of when.

MARC LEBEAU, SENIOR FORENSIC SCIENTIST, FBI LABORATORY, VIRGINIA: We talk about the so-called "date-rape" drugs, but by far, the number one drug that's used to facilitate assaults is alcohol.

VICTIM: We were drinking, we were underage, and it just...it was just a way of life, you know, at that age, partying and just drinking. I remember, like, waking up, and I knew I got assaulted. It just felt so wrong and I just—real ugly.

MARC LEBEAU: It's important to not get so focused on the fact that she may have voluntarily consumed all of this alcohol. If it puts her in a state where she cannot consent to a sexual act, then you have what you need to prosecute the case.

RUSSELL STRAND, CHIEF, US ARMY MILITARY POLICE, BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES EDUCATION AND TRAINING DIVISION: Alcohol is used by most sex offenders for two main reasons: one, it's readily available, and two, it's socially acceptable.

SARAH DEER: One of the biggest myths is that when alcohol is involved in sexual assault, it's a spontaneous event. But I think in reality we see cases where there's definitely some planning involved. They know that, for instance, this particular young woman has some challenges. Perhaps she's been abused as a child. Perhaps she has struggled herself with substance abuse or comes from a home where alcohol is used frequently. And they target her.

VICTIM: Now that I'm older, I see the truth behind it. And I thought I was safe in a family setting, and I really wasn't safe.

RUSSELL STRAND: That intoxication not only allows the offender to take advantage and make that victim more vulnerable, but it also gives them a smoke screen: "Well, I was drinking, too. We were both drunk. It was just drunk sex."

VICTIM: I just never thought I would be victimized like this because I was so aware of the sexual violence on the reservation. We had to be careful who you drink with, you know, who was around, and who knew you were drinking there, because there's a high chance that you're either going to get so intoxicated that you would pass out and, you know, bad things happen to people all the time.

RUSSELL STRAND: We typically only think of females, you know, being the victims of alcohol-facilitated sexual assaults, but many men fall to that same pattern of victimization, especially with alcohol.

TATEWIN MEANS, ATTORNEY GENERAL, OGLALA SIOUX TRIBE, SISSETON WAHPETON DAKOTA AND OGLALA LAKOTA: Domestic violence, sexual assault—those are not traditional to our nations. You can point to numerous different factors, you know—colonization, the boarding school era— all of these historical traumas that have happened to our nations and that have shaped our evolution to where we are today.

TERRA ABBOTT, RN, ACUTE CARE UNIT, NORTON SOUND HEALTH CORPORATION, NOME ESKIMO COMMUNITY: A lot of my friends, family members have endured some kind of trauma, whether it was domestic violence, sexual assault, substance abuse, even mental health conditions. It was a very hush-hush issue and it wasn't talked about.

TATEWIN MEANS: We do have to acknowledge all of those historical traumas to figure out how to address them and then move forward in a positive direction.

GREGG PETERMAN, SUPERVISORY ASSISTANT US ATTORNEY, DISTRICT OF SOUTH DAKOTA: There are many reasons why victims are reticent to come forward, and some of those are unique to Indian Country. First and foremost is the sheer humiliation. This crime is like no other crime. It is sexual. It is painful.

VICTIM: My perpetrator was my brother's best friend's brother, so in reality we're like family. It just took my whole spirit away. The easy part was wanting justice. The hard part was coming forward and trying to live through that shame.

GREGG PETERMAN: Invariably, unfortunately, there will be family members who side with the victim and family members who side with the defendant, and it's due in large measure, I believe, because of the small nature of these communities.

VICTIM: As I try to heal, I have to understand that...there's a bigger picture here. It's not just me that this is happening to, it's just like a—it's happening to everyone.

WOMAN: Okay, ladies. Introductions…

SARAH DEER: When Native women are in a place where they can talk about sexual assault, and somebody says, "What happened to you?" You know, "How did that happen?" And you'll see the response is, "Well, which time?" The most important service that can be provided to a victim who is assaulted while intoxicated is confidential advocacy. You can go talk to somebody and get information and get support without the fear that everybody in the community will hear your story. Having that service available allows the victim to consider all their options. And one of those options is to report the crime.

TATEWIN MEANS: Prosecution is a vital component to that because it holds the offender accountable, it gives the victim some sense of justice, that they were believed, they were listened to, and they were important.

ANGIE WALKER, VICTIM WITNESS COORDINATOR, WINNEBAGO TRIBAL COURT, WINNEBAGO TRIBE OF NEBRASKA: That's the number one thing is, "I believe you and what you're saying," and not judge them right off in the beginning, because that's what happens in a lot of times.

JASON LAWRENCE, BIA CHIEF OF POLICE, RED BAND, CHIPPEWA INDIAN: For me, when I interview a victim, I want to give them space, I want to be able to let them know that it's okay not to, you know, to relive everything at the moment. And I'd want the victim to know that we support them and we have services for them.

VICTIM: My aunt, my aunt reassuring me, "We got to go do this. You have to do a rape kit." And then I thought about the actual act of it. It was really traumatic, and I was like, "I can't do that." She was like, "I'll go with you. Let's go. Do you want me to go with you?" And, "Yeah."

TERRA ABBOTT: When a patient comes in, I usually have a patient advocate come in who hooks them up with the right resources. I can refer them over to our behavior health system, which we have numerous counselors for them. And usually I give them a medical forensic exam and prophylactically treat them for pregnancy and STIs.

VICTIM: For me, walking into the ER was really shameful because there's a stigma on the reservation that when this happens, you're like a whore, you're like a slut. It—you know, you wanted it. It—you know, there's a stigma there. So I didn't want anybody to know.

GREGG PETERMAN: In this case, we had a great investigation but we didn't have forensic evidence we could use, and so it really did come down to the victim. The most important way, I think, to build rapport, to build confidence, to build trust in you, to—for her to feel safe with you, because that courtroom will be scary and feel even dangerous, is to spend time with her.

VICTIM: Gregg was really awesome in helping me in my case, and what I liked about Gregg the most was he didn't have that…that sort of racism that's around this area. The racism around here is so high. And he was like—I loved it. He was just on this, "We're gonna get this guy," you know. You know, just reassurance that he was going to do his job, and that...that felt good, that gave me a lot of confidence.

GREGG PETERMAN: We never let her forget how well she did, how brave and courageous she was to come in there. And he was convicted of sexual abuse.

SARAH DEER: It's really important that tribal leaders express the philosophy that this kind of behavior, this sexually exploitive behavior is not keeping with tribal tradition. It's not acceptable under tribal law, and we have a policy of believing survivors and supporting survivors. And that message coming from the top, I think, is critical.

ANGIE WALKER: I want the word to get out that, hey, we're serious. We're...we're gonna do something, you know. We're gonna—we want this to end.

VICTIM: Being a parent now, I have to tell my kids about this, you know, so that it empowers them. This ugly doesn't take away from you, it empowers you. I was perpetrated on numerous times. But this one time I have justice. This one time I had justice, so I believe in it.

Date Created: June 16, 2020