How Universities Fail Native American Victims of Sexual Assault

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Annita Lucchesi

I am 20, and a senior in college. Nine of my classmates listened to me being raped by a classmate who repeatedly called me Pocahontas the night before (even though I have fair skin and curly hair). They did nothing and said nothing. I tried to throw away my bloody bedsheets, but my landlady—who lived in the apartment below ours—pulled them from me, saying it was a waste of pretty satin sheets, and that she would wash them and keep them for herself.

It was easier to laugh it off and be the fun party girl than the sad rape girl, so that is what I did. I dressed myself up, went to parties, drank myself to oblivion, woke up with new strangers’ handprints on a body that did not even feel real anymore, cried, and did it all over again. A classmate living in another apartment below me let himself into mine when I was home alone one afternoon…he had already violated boundaries before. My roommate walked in to find us in a standoff in the kitchen…I have very few memories from that year of my life, but I cannot forget the glimmer of the kitchen knife in my shaking hand.

By the following semester, I was barely leaving my apartment at all. A professor for whom I was working as a research assistant repeatedly shut me in his office, and would ask me out on dates, make comments with sexual innuendo, and behave in a variety of other inappropriate ways. The day the department secretary came to save me was the last day I was able to go to campus. I had anxiety and panic attacks every time I tried to walk myself to class, and soon I was flunking all my classes. I was assigned weekly meetings with a university-appointed social worker so that I could drop the classes I had with that professor. Waiting for her in the special office they have for sexual assault victims was more depressing than trying to go to school; there was always at least one person crying. I felt as though we were the reject students the university wanted to dispose of. I found out that was true, when the FBI started investigating the school for mishandling sexual assault cases a few years later. When I turned in the paperwork to drop my classes, the woman working at the Registrar’s desk told me I should stop being such a slut and start caring more about school. I did not tell her I was an honors student before I was raped.

Now, I am 26. A caring faculty mentor helped to ensure that I graduated with highest honors that semester. I went on to earn my MA, though it took me four years to complete because of the impact of repeated and ongoing violence. I was sexually assaulted six more times—two times were by classmates, during a time period when the campus was plagued with repeated sexual assaults targeting woman of color students. I survived a year of life-threatening domestic violence. And, I faced extreme racialized and gendered harassment at my new university. Examples include: seeing the only other Native person in the department brutally beaten and put into a coma; being told in class that “if Native women do not want to get raped they need to leave their reservations;” being dropped from a class by a professor because I disagreed with him that “colonialism is so passé;” and, being told by a classmate that I “should just go back to the reservation,” because I did not belong there. Though I tried a myriad of services aimed at supporting victims, it was not until I joined a traditional cultural program through a Native health clinic that I found any healing.

One in three American Indian women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and one in four college students are sexually assaulted during their 4 years at school. The statistic we do not know is how much overlap there is between the two. Anecdotally, I can say that almost every indigenous woman I know in academia has been harassed, abused, or assaulted at one point in their lives. That is not to say it happens to everyone—just me, my friends, my sisters in on-campus organizations, and the professors who have taken me under their wings as mentors and aunties. And yet, despite the overwhelming gendered, sexual, racial, and colonial violence that I see surrounding us, I see very few services that are even trained to be culturally competent when supporting indigenous college student victims of sexual assault, much less services that are designed with our unique needs and experiences in mind.

I have never had a therapist who could even place my tribe on a map, let alone understand that when I was raped it triggered intergenerational trauma from when one of my great-grandmothers was kidnapped and raped by a settler man. Both universities quarantined me in quiet, sanitized waiting rooms, rather than hold my colleagues accountable for the violence they perpetrated, or provide me with culture-based services that could have actually helped me heal. What I needed was a community that could fill the aching hole that intense homesickness created, and cultural practices that could remedy the numb feelings of worthlessness and constant victimhood that I carried. Instead, both universities wrote me a prescription for anti-depressants I had no interest in taking, shuffled me through bureaucratic offices where I had to tell my story over and over, and repeatedly tried to push me to drop out.

Universities need indigenous mental health professionals, or at the very least, woman of color mental health professionals who have cultural competency training to work with indigenous students. Universities need indigenous-designed and led cultural competency trainings among all levels of staff. Universities need partnerships with indigenous healthcare centers. Universities need support programming for indigenous woman students, including appropriate faculty and staff mentors, adequate academic resources relevant to their home communities, funds for student organizations, a commitment to bringing indigenous speakers and performers to campus, safe study spaces, safe community spaces, a commitment to raising awareness of indigenous cultures among all students and staff, and culture-based physical and mental wellness programs. Lastly, universities need to stop pretending that their “rape problem” isn’t also a “race problem.”

Annita Lucchesi is Southern Cheyenne, and her ancestors’ traditional home territory is in northeastern Colorado and southern Wyoming. She is a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge, in the Cultural, Social, & Political Thought program. She graduated with her BA from the University of California, Berkeley in 2012, and earned her MA from Washington State University in 2016.