StrongHearts Native Helpline launched an initiative to strengthen its sexual violence advocacy Monday to better support Native Americans nationwide.
StrongHearts, a service created in 2017, initially focused on domestic violence advocacy for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. The goal was to fill a nationwide gap in Native-centered resources, said Director Lori Jump. With that goal in mind, the team decided to increase its training to better support people who have experienced sexual violence.
“We know there’s a great resource disparity in our community, especially when it comes to culturally specific services,” said Jump, a member of the Sault Saint Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “We want our relatives to have that access to something that’s going to work for them.”
StrongHearts was created with support from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Family and Youth Services Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its goal is to provide Native-centered, empowering and trauma-informed advocacy.
While its team completes an intense two-week training program, the training focuses on domestic violence, Jump said. The new effort will increase sexual advocacy training so the team can better support someone with those experiences.
Native Americans and Alaska Natives are twice as likely to experience rape/sexual assault compared to all races, according to a 2004 report from the Department of Justice. About 5,900 Native Americans, ages 12 and older, experience sexual assault each year.
“That represents only people that we know about. Probably 80% of people never report their victimizations to the police,” Jump said. “The problem is actually much bigger than what those numbers show.”
People might be reluctant to report because they expect to be blamed for the incident or because they fear negative repercussions, especially when they know the person who committed the act, she said.
When someone calls in, a StrongHearts team member helps the person feel empowered to make decisions for their own healing, whether it’s connecting with a local community resource or finding resources for sexual assault exams or prosecuting the perpetrator.
“It’s never their fault,” Jump said. “The peer support and validation is critical to someone who suffered a sexual assault.”
The organization has been in contact with all of the tribes in the country, including the Four Corners. Jump declined to share further information about the organization’s work in the region, citing safety and privacy concerns.
Gina Lopez, rural and indigenous communities specialist with Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, has been in contact with StrongHearts for years.
She said there are high rates of domestic violence in rural and tribal communities, but detailed data is hard to find. Advocates in rural communities also face inconsistent funding, and rural residents might hesitate to seek support in small towns where anonymity is lower.
“A resource like StrongHearts offers that culturally focused approach and is removed from that community,” Lopez said. “It provides a level of trust and anonymity to support that survivor.”
Jump encouraged more conversations about sexual violence. There is still a lot of victim blaming and shame that occurs, she said. That blame can keep people from healing.
“What was she doing there alone? Why did she take that ride? Why was she drinking?” she said. “We need to put a stop to that rape culture that exists, that blames victims.”
Native American community members who need support can contact StrongHearts at (844) 762-8483 or strongheartshelpline.org.