When Abigail Echo-Hawk first started her job as director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, she felt compelled to open the bottom drawer of a file cabinet in the corner of her office.
Among a dozen files inside, she noticed one labeled “Sexual Violence.”
Echo-Hawk had stumbled upon a copy of questions from a 2010 survey, co-produced by the health institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), documenting experiences of sexual violence among Native-American women living in Seattle.
The survey findings alone are shocking: 94 percent of the 148 women interviewed, all of whom identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, reported they had been raped or were coerced into sex at least once in their lives.
And more than half the women – 53 percent – were homeless at the time they were surveyed.
But also surprising was the fact the survey results had been kept under wraps for six years by the time Echo-Hawk discovered them in her desk in 2016. Results from two other surveys on sexual violence, done in two other U.S. cities at the same time as the Seattle report, had long ago been released.
This week, almost two years later after working with the CDC to release and interpret the data, the health institute released the survey results and report, called “Our Bodies, Our Stories,” first in a community meeting Wednesday, and then to the public Thursday.
The report is important not just because of the violence it documents, Echo-Hawk said, but because of the people surveyed. She believes this is the first report on sexual violence focused exclusively on Native women living in an urban setting and that also addresses factors like historical trauma.
Generally, studies involving Native people focuses on those living on reservations, Echo-Hawk said. But about 71 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in urban areas like Seattle.
Among some of the other key report findings:
42 percent of the women had attempted suicide at some point in their lives;
34 percent binge-drank weekly or daily after the attack;
A small number of women reported their assaults to police and an even smaller percentage — only eight cases — resulted in a conviction of the perpetrator;
86 percent of all the women surveyed reported being affected by historical trauma.
It’s difficult to know precisely how these statistics compare to the broader population. But the CDC’s 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reported that about one in five women in the U.S. — a little more than 21 percent — had experienced an attempted or completed rape at some point in their lives.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, which was exclusively for members of the Native community, no one was particularly shocked by the survey results. This type of violence has long been an issue of concern, though one rarely discussed out in the open.
The reason the survey results were hidden for so long is because leaders at the Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board, had decided to not release them, believing the information would only lead to negative characterizations of the Native community, according to Echo-Hawk.
“We’re always taught as Native people … you don’t hang your dirty laundry out, because people attack the victims,” said Susan Balbas, co-founder and executive director of the Seattle-based Na’ah Illahee Fund, which promotes the leadership of indigenous women and girls. She attended Wednesday’s meeting.
By bringing this information into the light, “it’s acknowledging the violence in the community but really developing a critical analysis about what the causes are,” Balbas said. “It’s the legacies, the ongoing legacies of colonization and policies that have affected tribal communities, intentional policies that have hurt and damaged Native communities.”
A survivor of rape herself, Echo-Hawk was determined to release the information.
“These women gifted us with these stories that were difficult and hard to tell,” Echo-Hawk said, “and they did it for a reason.”
“We felt powerful together”
Much of this information, about the prevalence of sexual assault in general, was already talked about among those who work with Native people experiencing homelessness.
At the Chief Seattle Club, the city’s largest Native-led homeless services provider, it’s common knowledge that at least one club member is sexually assaulted every week, said Executive Director Colleen Echohawk, Abigail’s sister (they spell their last names differently).
Native Americans disproportionally experience homelessness locally, a fact highlighted in last year’s homeless point-in-time count, when Native Americans and Alaskan Natives were found to have the highest rates of homelessness in King County compared to any racial or ethnic group. They make up less than 1 percent of the county’s overall population but comprised nearly 6 percent of those who were homeless during the 2017 one-night count.
And, more broadly, research shows that people who are homeless are more susceptible to sexual victimization. Studies have shown many women who are homeless previously experienced violence, including sexual violence, when they were children.
This new survey quantifies that anecdotal evidence among Seattle’s Native women.
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“The data is almost like the skeleton,” Abigail Echo-Hawk said. “The stories from the community are the clothes that bring the stories to prominence, to the policymakers, to the activists, to the community.”
They are happy they were able to interview as many women as they did, she said, considering the sensitivity of the subject matter and the relatively small size of the King County Native population: about 46,000 people, according to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey.
To leaders at the health institute, the survey results reinforce the importance of cultural competency when these kinds of studies are done — all of the women who were surveyed were interviewed at one of three Seattle organizations that works with and serves Native people.
And, for Colleen Echohawk, the results underscore the need for Native-led organizations to be at the table when it comes to deciding what programs are funded and determining the priorities of the local homeless-services system.
“If we do not address the race disparity within our homeless community and look at these factors like sexual violence that impact our rates of homelessness, than we will not find a solution to this problem,” she said.
In terms of next steps, Abigail Echo-Hawk wants to broaden the study pool, eventually conducting a survey in five to 10 cities across the country with large urban Indian communities.
She and Balbas have been meeting for several months as part of a recently formed coalition of Native leaders in Seattle focused on gender-based violence and missing and murdered indigenous women. The group plans to lobby local policymakers to address these results, so they can work to stop the cycle of violence.
The #MeToo movement, and its focus on sexual harassment and abuse, and the increasing focus in Canada and the U.S. on missing and murdered indigenous women, may make this a particularly pointed time to release this information, Balbas said.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first of many more community discussions to come about the issues. That night, many women shared their experiences of sexual violence publicly for the first time.
“It was hard but … I think we felt powerful together,” said Balbas, whose voice briefly broke as she discussed the meeting. “We can do something about this. It’s got to stop, because we love our children so much and we don’t want this to go on and on.
“We’re very committed to doing what it takes to really put an end to this cycle of violence,” she continued, “because we don’t deserve it.”
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