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Activist probes street harassment of Indian women

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SIOUX FALLS | Gender-based street harassment such as catcalling and other unwanted attention can be especially jarring for Native American woman who experience higher rates of sexual assault than their counterparts who are not American Indians, the founder of an organization to stop street harassment said.

Holly Kearl, founder of the Washington-based nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, traveled to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Rapid City this week to talk with Native American women about their experiences with street harassment. Kearl hopes to use the information from the two small focus groups as part of a proposed national study looking at street harassment across the nation.

"They won't walk certain places or go running certain places. One of the young women who is a runner won't go running certain places because of the harassment. ... They know the escalation of what some of these behaviors can turn into," Kearl said in a phone interview following the focus groups.

One out of every three Native American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, spanning more than 3,000 square miles in southwest South Dakota, is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. About 40,000 people live on the reservation.

In big cities, street harassment might include a stranger whistling or catcalling to a woman walking down the street. On Pine Ridge, the harasser may be someone the woman knows.

Sunny Clifford, a 26-year-old Kyle resident who took part in the focus group, said most of the street harassment she experiences on the reservation involves boys who are in high school or younger. She spoke about a recent incident in which a group of boys about 10 years old made sexually suggestive comments to her and her sister as they sat outside their mother's home.

Such behavior could lead to sexual assaults in the future, because the boys aren't being taught respect for women, Clifford said.

"If they think it's OK to go and say whatever they want to some women, it makes it OK later on in life to go and do whatever they want to a woman," she said.

Unwanted attention and harassment can be especially pervasive at powwows because Native Americans from many different communities and tribes who don't know each other are coming together in one place, said Dawn Moves Camp, a 29-year-old who lives near Wanblee on the Pine Ridge reservation and took part in the focus group.

"It's kind of socially acceptable at powwows to be approached in inappropriate ways. A lot of people don't realize that because it's part of our culture and we go and feel accustomed to it and we don't know it's wrong," she said, adding that women often giggle after men make noises at them. "For Native women, we've grown so accustomed to being approached in those ways that we don't know it's bad for us. We don't know we don't deserve to be talked to that way."

Moves Camp said she hopes focus groups and studies such as the one proposed by Kearl will bring awareness to the issue. She said Native American women should talk to the men in their lives about the importance of having respect for women.

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