KBIC walk aims to combat sexual abuse

BARAGA – About 60-70 community members joined the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community’s Office of Violence Against Women and the tribal police department Friday for the Step out of the Darkness KBIC Walk to End Sexual Assault.

Walkers circled the KBIC tribal center and casino properties – taking in signs along the way featuring anti-abuse messages – and heard some sobering facts about sexual abuse and more encouraging information about tribal resources for victims from KBIC Office of Violence Against Women Team Leader Cherie Dakota.

Dakota said the Step out of the Darkness theme referred to two things, the tendency for most sexual assaults to happen at night, and the longstanding taboo against talking about the issue that has allowed sexual assault to continue.

“Having educational events like this, with people to talk to, hopefully there’s less of a stigma to talking about it,” she said, adding that she was impressed with the turnout for a first-time event.

Tribal member Heather Asher said she had dealt with sexual abuse in her own life, and knew many others who had as well. She said she thought some younger people were growing up with better attitudes regarding sexual assault, but that there was still a need for increased awareness.

“I think this helps,” she said of the walk. “I think it will help to show how many women and men have had sexual abuse in their lives.”

Dakota said the abuse and eventual murder of tribal member Chelsea LaFernier in 2009 spurred the KBIC to devote resources to abuse issues, and the tribe now has a 24-hour crisis line for victims of abuse and a shelter for victims and their children to escape abusive situations.

Dakota said the crisis line will offer assistance to anyone who calls, and can quickly get an advocate out to meet a victim. Advocates can help victims with rape-test kits, getting a protection order, or connecting them with the shelter or outreach services

The shelter can serve about 12 people at a time, Dakota said, and while it’s primarily intended for women and children there are resources available for male victims as well.

“The shelter house opened in December of 2012,” Dakota said. “We’ve had about 18 people stay there since then, and well over 900 shelter nights including individuals and families.”

KBIC Police Chief Miranda Forcia said her department walked to raise awareness of sexual assault issues, and to make sure community members know that police are available 24/7 to respond to victim’s needs.

“We want them to know that year round, any day, they can report an incident to the police and we can get help for them,” she said. She said officers would give their best efforts to investigate alleged assaults, and to connect victims with survivor resources.

Off-duty officers wore T-shirts with a “Consent is Sexy” logo, a fun take on one of the educational themes of the event – that any non-consensual sexual contact is a crime.

Dakota said while there was work to be done, more men were coming around to that realization that “no means no” regardless of the situation, even within a marriage.

For Mike Mumo, a Native American from the downstate Little River Band of Odawa Indians who works in Baraga as a substance abuse counselor, those rules of thumb were just a starting point. He looked at the walk as an event “promoting our (Native) tradition of respect and honoring women, getting that tradition back.”

The phone number for the tribal crisis line is 906-353-4599. For the KBIC Police Department, call 906-353-6626.