The phone rings. My 15-year-old is hurt, the caller says. My mind begins racing and I’m not hearing clearly. You see, it's July 2015 and my daughter was a guest speaker at a native youth summit some 1,500 miles from home when the phone rang. But in the jumble of the words, I clearly hear the caller state “rape.” I cannot tell you what the caller actually said. I lose the ability to hear and hand the phone to my husband.
The next 24 hours become a blur. Intermittent calls from the doctors, police officer, chaperone, sexual assault advocate and, finally, our broken baby girl. She had developed a migraine which she has suffered from since age 7. She took her medication during lunch and asked if she could go lay down. Since the other kids were still eating, she stepped onto the elevator alone to go lay down in her room but she wasn’t alone on the elevator. Her rapist was there.
The rage is indescribable. Then the helplessness, self-blame and fear sets in. The DA began the arduous task of prosecuting her rapist and we begin trying to help our baby put her life back together. There are so many things you don’t realize you need to do after rape. Medically, you should have blood tests monthly for the first year to check for disease. Physically, bruises tend to show up days later and you must endure more police photographs. Mentally, you need counseling to help find your new center of gravity.
One in three Native women will be raped. This sobering statistic only intensified Cierra’s drive. She became determined to help as many survivors as she could.
Luckily, we had an entire tribal nation helping and supporting us. Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree, Chief Bill John Baker, the entire Cherokee Marshal Services and the angels working at One Fire Victim Services surrounded us, guiding us through these dark days.
In September of last year, Cierra saw a small amount of justice. After more than a dozen motions to continue the case, the judge set a court date. We prepared ourselves for a face to face meeting in that court room with the man who raped our child. However, the day before his trial was to begin, he pleaded guilty to Rape III—the lesser charge. The DA had arranged strict 10-year probation for this rapist. He is listed as a child sexual offender, he must register everywhere he lives, he must see his parole officer every week, he cannot be within 1,000 feet locations where children gather, may only have supervised visitation with his infant daughter, must submit yearly to mental evaluations, must submit weekly to drug testing, must submit to lie detector evaluations whenever the DA requests and has a lifetime restraining order.
Cierra knew immediately that she wanted to speak out, as she is extremely active in the Cherokee Nation. She defiantly said, “I did nothing to be ashamed of,” and wanted to tell her story before anyone lied and created another version of events. I have no idea where her strength came from but it gave me strength.
She first told her story via social media and then to the Cherokee Phoenix. Each time she told her story, she became stronger.
Somehow, my 15-year-old was able to take her pain and channel it into an intense focus. Through working with One Fire Victim Services, a local organization that helps victims of sexual and domestic abuse, she began to learn the ugly truth about sexual assault among Native women. One in three Native women will be raped. Some 33 percent of all Native women in this country will be assaulted. That number is outrageous and disgusting. This sobering statistic only intensified Cierra’s drive. She became determined to help as many survivors as she could. She learned that many rape kits go untested and cases unsolved. She learned that the survivor is always questioned as if they contributed to their own assault. She learned that rape and sexual assault are difficult to prosecute and even harder to secure a conviction.
She had met Vincent Schilling in Washington, D.C., when she was awarded the Center for Native American Youth’s Champion for Change honor in 2013. He is a journalist and editor for Indian Country Today (the largest Native American newspaper in the US). He reached out to her and offered her a platform to voice her story at a national level. She wrote her first article in 2016 about rape. She began receiving hundreds of comments, emails and messages from survivors both young and old.
Hearing tribal elders tell their rape stories and knowing she was the first person they had ever told was heartbreaking. She has listened to their stories, answered every one of them and told them that she believes them. Through this entire series of events I never once questioned her or blamed her. From the moment I could speak to her, I reassured her that I believed her. Period. I didn’t need to hear “her side of the story” because there were no versions of this story. For me, it was as stark as black and white—that man raped her. Just because she smiled at him in the elevator and made small talk with him did not give him consent.
Who knew the power of the three words “I believe you”? Cierra continues to write articles, speak at conferences and demands justice for all at just 17 years of age. As her mother, I am inspired and strengthened by her courage. When I find myself in that dark place, I look to her as a reminder to dig deep within and find my strength to pull myself back.
Like millions of other women, we marched on January 21. Cierra marched to highlight the Violence Against Women’s Act and its possible cut in funding under this new administration. I marched to support my survivor and the countless other rape survivors who are being marginalized. I believe you, too.
Organizations For Rape Survivors: