New grant funds programs to address sexual assault among Native Americans

MILWAUKEE_Native American women experience sexual assault more than any other ethnic group, but often they don’t get the medical examinations needed to collect the forensic evidence that would help prosecute their assailants. That’s because they live too far from a clinic or are distrustful of the exams and the criminal complaint process.

A research team led by Lucy Mkandawire-Valhmu at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has a received a $2 million federal grant for a project that will support increasing access to medical forensic care and also training to help mainstream health care providers and victim advocates deliver culturally sensitive services.

The three-year project will serve thousands of Native survivors both in the Milwaukee area and in six northwestern Wisconsin counties, said Mkandawire-Valhmu, a UWM associate professor of nursing.

The research team will implement the program with several community agencies that work with Native populations, including Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center (Milwaukee), St. Croix Valley Sexual Assault Response Team (River Falls), Embrace, and Healing Intergenerational Roots (Milwaukee).

After experiencing sexual violence, women who notify police are asked to undergo a medical examination so that forensic evidence of the crime can be collected by a specially trained nurse examiner, Mkandawire-Valhmu said. The survivors may also have an advocate to ensure that they obtain more holistic support.

“For ethnic groups, including African Americans and Native Americans, there is a hesitancy to even access the health care establishment because of issues of trust,” she said. “Through this program, we can ensure that when they encounter Native patients they can do so in a culturally safe manner.”

With the funding, provided by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, the researchers will add a specialized nurse examiner in Rice Lake, Wis., expand the duties of another in Milwaukee and set up a satellite location that will serve six counties in northwestern Wisconsin.

Working with community partners, including the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, Red Wind and American Indians Against Abuse, the researchers also will develop an advocacy training program that will addresses the unique needs of Native American survivors.

The training could include aspects such as the use of Native practices that contribute to healing, which will give mainstream health care providers tools to help establish trust and empathy, Mkandawire-Valhmu said.

Advocacy services can then be delivered through community partnerships with Embrace in St. Croix, Barron, Sawyer, Rusk, Price and Washburn counties.

Many of the perpetrators of violence against Native women are not tribal members, said Jeneile Luebke, a UWM nursing doctoral student who is researching the reasons why violence is so prevalent against Native American women and its effects on survivors.

The team on the current grant will build upon a project funded in the last two years by the Forest County Potawatomi Foundation that has supported a maternal-child health program for Native women in Green Bay and Milwaukee. Luebke’s role in that program focused on documenting experiences of sexual violence among women of childbearing age.

Mining and fracking industries have brought an influx of non-Native people into Native communities, leading to an increase in violence against Native women, Luebke said. But decades of federal legislation have left tribes unable to prosecute nontribal people who have committed crimes on tribal land.

“It’s necessary to really understand the legacy of historical trauma that has happened,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma and assumptions. So, making sure that people (survivors) are listened to is so important.”

In building trust, the researchers hope they can lay the foundation for further preventive programming to address sexual assault, she added.

In addition to Mkandawire-Valhmu and Luebke, the UWM research team includes associate professor Peninnah Kako, doctoral student Jacqueline Callari Robinson, associate professor James Dimitri Topitzes, associate professor Tim Ehlinger in the Masters of Sustainable Peacebuilding program, and Margaret Noodin, Leah Arndt and Maurina Paradise at UWM’s Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education.

For more information, contact Lucy Mkandawire-Valhmu at