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Category: Race/Ethnicity, Violence against Women

Native Americans Speak Out About Street Harassment

| September 9, 2012

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Sunny and Kristina Clifford shared stories of street harassment on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The author, founder of the website Stop Street Harassment, collected stories in focus groups to augment a forthcoming, first of its kind national report on street harassment.

“Hey baby girl,” a group of ten and twelve-year-old Native American boys yelled over and over as they jumped on a trampoline. Then they lifted up their shirts and said, “You want some of this?” as they pounded on their chests. Their targets: Sunny and Kristina Clifford, two Native American sisters in their 20s, sitting outside their mother’s home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The boys wouldn’t stop and the young women felt so uncomfortable they went inside the house. 

The Clifford sisters shared this story during a focus group I recently held at Oglala Lakota College on Pine Ridge Reservation about Native Americans’ experiences with street harassment. They said this incident had happened to them just the day before. 

I quickly learned from the focus group participants that, like the rest of the country and the rest of the world, sexual harassment in public spaces is not unusual on the Pine Ridge Reservation, an area the size of the state of Connecticut with a population of 18,834 and an unemployment rate of 89 percent.

Most people on the reservation do not have regular access to a car, and the only public transportation available is a relatively new shuttle bus. As a result, walking is a primary way for people to travel from place to place. The women said that’s when they experience the most street harassment, at the hands of Native and non-Native men driving by in their cars. Kristina Clifford remarked, “There’s always somebody honking, or saying things, yelling, or whatever. It just makes me uncomfortable.”

Sometimes, another woman said, the men drive by once, turn around, and drive by again and again, just to harass them. Consequently, there are places the young women will not walk, and Sunny Clifford, a runner, said she won't run along the roads anymore.

I also conducted a focus group with a few Native Americans living in Rapid City, South Dakota, which is about 80 miles from the reservation and has a population of 69,200. Rates of poverty are high for Native American residents and walking, as on the reservation, is a common mode of transportation.

A month ago, in the evening, one young woman (who did not want her name mentioned) said that as she walked along the city’s bike path to visit her grandmother, a group of Native men surrounded her and one of them grabbed her. She said she fought him off. As she took off running she heard him yell, “Hey, get over here, do you want to f***?”

As a rape survivor (and at least one in three Native women are), the experience was especially traumatic, and, at 26-years-old, she now asks her mother or her mother’s boyfriend to go everywhere with her. If one of them cannot, she stays home. Her mother came with her to the public library where I held the focus group.

Another woman in her 20s (who also did not want her name mentioned) shared an experience from the night before. Her husband works the graveyard shift at Hardees from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and she often walks there when he starts his shift because he can give her a free meal. The night before, when she walked home from the restaurant a carload of men whistled at her and called her a “F***ing Whore.”

“It’s pretty normal to me…that guys say that,” she said. “I just ignore it, I don’t say anything. It makes me mad, but I don’t know them and they don’t know me.”

The women in both groups also talked about experiencing racism in public spaces, especially from white store clerks and police officers. Because of racism, the women said they feel uncomfortable asking for help or reporting crimes, so they rarely do.

Fortunately, several people are taking action to change these realities.

Sunny Clifford wants to join the Rapid City police force next year. She hopes she can be an officer that Native Americans would feel comfortable reporting crimes to and that her presence on the force would make the white officers more comfortable around Native Americans and inspire the officers to act respectfully.

In response to a widespread lack of respect for women, last fall Holly Sortland, who set up the focus groups I conducted, launched ProjectRespect.Org. The organization’s work focuses on youth interventions to prevent sexual violence.

Their six week summer program paired teenage girls with adolescent boys. The girls mentored the boys, focusing on specific Lakota values as they built picnic tables, planted a rose garden, and visited with special needs dogs. While the boys were defiant at first, they learned to like and respect their mentors, making the program a great model for fostering and instilling respect in youth in communities nationwide.

And now, the brave women who told their stories are helping show just how pervasive street harassment is and the ways it negatively impacts lives. Their stories will be included in a national report on street harassment in the United States I am authoring, the first of its kind. They will supplement the findings a forthcoming national street harassment survey of 2,000 people.

I hope the report, combined with the growing number of local efforts to end street harassment, can finally force people in authority to pay attention to the issue and take actions that will make public places nationwide safer for everyone!

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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