Wind River reservation girls learn self defense

By Kristy Gray
Arapahoe, Wyoming (AP) June 2010

 KERRY HULLER/Casper Star-Tribune
Anjalene Catron, 13, practices her punches with her mom. (AP)
It’s 11:05 on a Saturday morning. The workshop should have started five minutes ago, but so far, no girls have come.

Linda Heron, a counselor at Arapahoe Charter High School, looks at the clock and pulls out her cell phone.

“Transportation is a huge problem on the reservation,” she says.

Multiple families share one car. Perhaps she should have rented a van and picked up the girls herself. She waits in the gym at the Arapahoe school for members of the Young Ladies’ Society, a group of teenage girls distraught about what’s happening to girls on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

On June 4, 2008, Ohetica Win “Elyxis” Gardner, 13, Winter Rose Jenkins, 14, and Alexandrea WhitePlume, 15, were found dead. Authorities have not released their causes of death.

On April 2, Marisa Spoonhunter, 13, was killed during a night of drinking, according criminal charges in the case against her brother and another man.

Other girls tell about sexual assaults, going to adult parties, drinking and blacking out.

The Young Ladies’ Society wants to say “enough.”

They’ve invited Flies Away Consulting to the gym to present a workshop on survival thinking. It teaches girls how to protect themselves, to develop a winner’s mindset.

But it’s hard to fight when you don’t have a ride.

At about 11:10, Jolene Catron and her daughter, Anjalene Catron, 13, of Hudson, step uncertainly through the doorway. Raven Oldman, wearing a shirt that reads “Taking Back the Rez,” gets in her car and drives off, returning with four more girls.

By 11:30, there are seven girls ages 12 to 17 and three adult women.

It’s a start.

Heron grew up on the reservation – 3.5 million square miles of prairie surrounded by the Wind River, Owl Creek and Absaroka mountains, shared between the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.

She knows what young people face.

She returned after college and has worked at Arapahoe Charter since it opened six years ago. Life, here, doesn’t shock her.

“I’d rather work with this population than some others because they are good people,” she says. “I’m comfortable here.”

Her work is also heartbreaking.

She remembers a girl telling her she’d been raped. Heron called the FBI, which didn’t hold much hope for an arrest. The girl had been intoxicated. Do you know how many calls like this we get each month? Heron says the agent asked her. Fourteen.

The Young Ladies’ Society began in her office.

Five girls came to talk with Heron after Spoonhunter’s body was found. The girls were angry and scared. They thought it could happen to them.

What are you going to do about it? Heron had asked.

The society they formed is geared toward 11- to 18-year-old girls. The five founding members signed sobriety vows. They hope to be role models and to expand the society to a community-wide effort for girls of any background, tribe or race. They want to have monthly workshops on all kinds of topics, free for young women.

Today is their first public event, a workshop called S.T.O.P – Survival Thinking, Observation and Planning. It stresses prevention first, then fighting back.

The program starts with a power-point presentation. Flies Away owner Clarence Thomas tells the girls that men were traditionally taught to honor women, that they were sacred.

But in the 1800s, in boarding schools, American Indians learned about ownership. Wives and children became property, Thomas says. He calls it generational trauma. American Indians passed these ideas to their sons and daughters. Ownership begat privacy – for family and for the individual – which fosters secrecy and silence. When the deaths started, the elders should have stood up and said, “No more!” Thomas says.

“But you will notice, nobody said anything.”

About a year ago, young women began telling Thomas, a drug and alcohol counselor since 1992, that they felt preyed upon. They felt men watching, trying to get them drunk. Some told him of taking a drink, blacking out and coming to with strangers on top of them.

He warns that more than 50 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol. Perpetrators use it to blame the victim: “She was drunk.” The best prevention is avoiding dangerous situations – adult parties attended by strangers.

If you do go, he tells the girls, don’t eat the food. Don’t drink anything not sealed in a can or bottle. Don’t get intoxicated.

Look for the exits and windows. Recognize when a man is trying to herd you away from friends.

Think: “I am not going to be a victim.”

Brianna Tillman, 17, a senior at Lander Valley High School, and Shaina Ute, 15, a sophomore at Lander, sit down together on the mat during a break.

“It’s kind of like the girls don’t care anymore,” Tillman says.

“It’s the parents, too,” Ute replies. Her friends “don’t have limits. They don’t have rules or boundaries.”

“When you punch, you want to PUNCH!” Thomas says, standing in front of the girls, striking out from his chest and closing his fist just before extension.

Mean it. Be deliberate. Act like your life depends on it.

“Every time you throw a punch, I want you to yell something,” Thomas says. “I want you to yell STOP!”

“STOP!” He strikes with his right fist.

“STOP!” Strikes with his left.

“STOP!” Strike. “STOP!” Strike. “Gain that inner sense that you will live.”

The girls pair off. Anjalene puts her whole body behind her punch. Her mom, Jolene, holds a blue body bag for protection and encourages her daughter to hit harder.

Jolene is executive director of the Wind River Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to protect the Wind River and its watershed. She teaches young people that all water runs together, and we are only as healthy as our water. Healthy communities are similar: People are all interconnected. When the connection is lost, social problems spread like disease.

“I think that is what is happening to our girls and our community in general,” Jolene said.

“And we’ve lost a lot of girls in the last couple of years.”

She and her daughter came because the Young Ladies’ Society isn’t funded by a grant, handed down from the top. It’s not an agency coming in from the outside. The society is grassroots, and that’s what is so exciting.

“This has got to be it,” Jolene said.

“These young ladies, this is where it’s going to happen.”

For the next hour, the girls learn about their weapons – teeth, thumbs, elbows, fists – and where on an attacker to use them – eyes, groin, stomach, lips. They practice hitting, kicking, kneeing, stomping down on the top of an attacker’s foot. That will break bones.

Drew Whiteman, 14, a ninth-grader at Riverton High School, is tall, thin and lanky. Her blue tank top is trimmed with lace, and a gemstone necklace hangs around her neck.

But she’s fighting like a wolverine.

Her hands are clasped behind Heron’s neck, pulling Heron’s head down. She thrusts up with her knee, slamming in the blue bag Heron is holding against her chest.

Heron: “What do you say?”

Whiteman: “Stop! Stop! STOP!”

Each strike is more powerful than the last.

Heron is out of breath when the two break apart. “Good job,” she says, panting. “That’s how you hurt someone.”

So many times, Heron has seen big talk from fired-up people. Then the fire fizzles.

After the Young Ladies’ Society formed and people started talking about it, Heron got a call from Wyoming U.S. Attorney Kip Crofts. He came to talk to the girls about huffing, alcohol, drugs and violence. What the girls were doing was wonderful, he told them. He wished them well. He asked them to call if his office could do anything.

The interest is encouraging, Heron says.

But people have been interested before.

What happens when the girls can’t organize because they can’t find a ride to meetings? When they don’t have any more minutes on cell phones?

Still, Heron believes this workshop is meaningful for the girls who could make it.