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Mohawks rally against sexual assault


AKWESASNE - Hundreds of residents rallied, marched and chanted during an event this week on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation to speak out against sexual assault - an issue that some acknowledge is still a problem in the community but is better addressed through counseling, support programs and shelters for victims.

The Walk a Mile in her Moccasins event drew close to 150 men, women and children, some of them wearing mocassins and most holding teal balloons and donning teal shirts, given out by organizers of the march. Teal is the color for sexual assault awareness, and April is sexual assault awareness month. The event was organized by the tribe’s social services division, Three Sisters Program, Konon:kwe Council and Act Now.

“It’s too bad that some people pretend it (sexual assault) is not happening, but it’s good people here raise awareness and say you can get help,” said Akwesasne resident Hilde Barnes, who took part in the march. “Around here there are pretty good programs to try to make people aware of the problem and to try to find solutions for it. (Sexual assault) seems to be a problem everywhere.”

The teal procession assembled at the St. Regis Mohawk School, marched up Church Street, turned left down Route 37 and ended at a shelter at the Tekakwitha walking trail, where marchers had refreshments and listened to speakers, some from Three Sisters, a program to help victims of sexual assault, who reminded participants of what they offer to help victims.

Marchers chanted and sang as they walked, some hanging teal balloons from lacrosse or walking sticks. As the parade entered Tekakwitha walking trail, they were greeted by a members of the Northern Sky Warriors stickball team, who clapped together their stickball sticks. A man identifying himself as Lead Horse said this was symbolic of Mohawk tradition, where they traveled with the women on the inside and the warriors on the outside, in order to protect the women.

“It’s great to see this turnout. It’s a great visualization for the community and the support we have for each other,” said Randi Rourke Barreiro of the Konon:kwe Council, a group that seeks to empower women in the Mohawk community.

After munching on donuts and hearing messages of empowerment from Three Sisters members, marchers were offered a brutal, heart-breaking look into the damage caused by sexual abuse and and how it can lead into a vicious cycle of physical abuse, substance abuse and self-destruction. Nionata’a came forward to relate how abuse from her step-father from an early age led her into a severe depression and feelings of self-worthlessness by her teens.

Eventually St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police responded to a domestic violence call, while she was defending herself from her abusive step-father, which led to her being taken from her mother’s home. But, sadly, the abuse didn’t end there. Nionata’a’s past abuse led her into a cycle of alcoholism and finding love in the wrong people, which led to several relationships with abusive men.

“I felt like I was a broken person. You’re a victim - that’s why you need this,” she said. “I was always blaming me. I had to learn it wasn’t my fault.”

Finally, with the help of local counseling programs and shelter houses, Nionata’a was able to clean up and break the cycle of abuse. Her story was a powerful reminder of how abuse victims often blame themselves, of the addictive nature of her mistakes and of the long-lasting impact of scars caused by abuse from an early age.

She urged participants to seek support, and have a zero-tolerance policy toward abuse. “Reach out and get what help you can,” she said. “One hit, one slap is bad enough.”

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