We’ve all done it. We’ve looked in the mirror and not liked the reflection. Sometimes we don’t like it so much that we avoid looking. Other times we use it as a driving force for change. What happens when a community takes a look and decides it doesn’t like what it sees?
Setting the Scene
The driving push behind many adults is their children. Parents recount the years in a series of memories, filled with a range of emotions. There is the joy of first steps and first days of school. There is the pain of seeing a child suffer a broken bone or enduring an illness. In many ways these memories establish who the child is later in life; the type of adult and parent they will become. No childhood is bliss, and no childhood should be misery.
Yet, how is a parent supposed to react when their child experiences a terrible trauma? Unfortunately, this question is one that many parents go through first hand in communities across the country. This is especially true in Native American communities. The statistics of violence against Native American women are numbing, and the inability to bring justice is shocking to those unfamiliar with the relationship between federal, state, and Tribal sovereignty.
Incidents of sexual abuse and sexual harassment have a long history on Native American reservations, and stepping up to confront them can be seen as difficult to do. The driving force behind one community’s reaction to violence against women and children has been the willingness of women to speak out against their assailants. This action is commendable to say the least, but it also deserves mentioning that those who are responsible for protecting women and children have not fulfilled their role. The list is long of people who have neglected this responsibility, and it bears repeating that if there is a search for who to blame then it must begin by looking in the mirror.
Looking in the Mirror
Recently, citizens of the Seminole Tribe of Florida collectively looked at the mirror. The discussion that took place began on August 16, 2020 and it was started by a young Seminole woman and mother of two named Rebecca Cypress. The discussion centered on the protection of children and it began with the following Facebook post:
The comments under the post were overwhelmingly messages of support. The comments were also quickly filled with names of people that had been convicted of a sexual offense and were registered on the Florida Sexual Offenders and Predators Search tool. In addition to this, the comments also began to mention names of people who were suspected or alleged to have committed sexual abuse or sexual harassment. It is important to mention here that although the post was made on Facebook, it was done so in a closed group just for members of the Seminole Tribe. Consequently, many within the Facebook group know one another in a familial or acquaintance manner.
As names of suspected or alleged people began to be posted additional comments from others would add to or confirm the suspicions. At this point, due to the nature of what was being alleged it must be noted that there were several comments containing names of other people from within the group. Several of these alleged people came to their own defense within the comments.
As the comments began to wind down, they began to be centered around resources to help others and the initial steps to take a more formal and organized stand against sexual abuse and sexual harassment within the Tribal community. The need to continue this discussion and involve other community stakeholders is the next step that Cypress wants to take. In another Facebook post on the group page Cypress posted the following on August 18, 2020:
Cypress strikes a tone that shows care and concern. Furthermore, she appears to be making an effort to push the conversation forward. To gain a better understanding of what drove her making to the original post, as well as to see what progress has been made since, Ms. Cypress agreed to an interview.
The following are questions asked and Ms. Cypress’s responses (edited for clarity):
Your first post is dated August 16th. What compelled you to making that first post?
For me it started with the hashtag #saveourchildren. I started looking at what happened to those kids and I thought about my own two children, and I feel that we need to protect kids in our own communities. These things happen in our families, to our close friends. I was really mad and angry at that moment because these things weren’t being talked about.
When you were making the first post, how did you feel? What did you think the reaction to your post would be?
My grandma would say when I was younger to “stay away from this person or that person.” My family was really open about these things, they weren’t shy about sharing. But I didn’t think the reaction would be what it was, I thought that only two or three people would talk about it. I thought that it would be hush hush like always.
After the post, when the reaction from others started, what thoughts came to you?
I didn’t expect the responses that came, and it was overwhelming at first. I was also happy that people were willing to speak up. What really got me was when I started to get direct messages from other people, they were telling me their stories. It was so heartbreaking that there was so many, I cried when I read them. People were also thanking me for bringing it up. I also had people message me saying I could get in to trouble or cause trouble. Some people were angry at me for bringing it up.
When you first received names of people who had allegedly committed sexual crimes or sexual harassment, what did you think?
One person named was my uncle. After he was named it made me rethink his actions from when I was younger. I realized what he did was really inappropriate and questionable. A friend shared a similar story about him. I think these things are suppressed because no one wants to face ridicule. No one wants to face the questions like “why did you hang out with him?” or “why didn’t you say something sooner?”.
What is it that you would like to see come out of the conversation about these sexual crimes?
I would like to start would tribal policies, beginning with people who have been convicted. I want to see support for our people. I want people to feel that they aren’t the only one. I don’t want people to feel afraid to see a person who has done something terrible to them. It really hurts that it’s taking so long. Everyone that I know is hurt by this. People should not have feel that this is something that can’t be talked about. We [the tribe] are all about family, we talk about how we should stay together. But some people move away from the reservation because of these things.
What solutions to this issue would you propose?
I think there should be support groups for families for them to know that they won’t face ridicule. I think the police and fire department should interact with kids more. They are the first people that kids look to for help. I’ve looked to see what other Tribes are doing, but I didn’t find much.
If you don’t like what you see when you look in the mirror, then first step to making a change is to decide to. If you’ve read this far then you’re either wrestling to make the decision to speak up, or you have already done so in your own way. If you’re still wrestling with the decision, Ms. Cypress posted another comment that you need to read:
The kids need you to decide.