Often life’s challenges render such despair that overcoming these hardships seems impossible. For Jerri, life has presented numerous obstacles; however, her struggles have empowered her to use her voice to help others. Jerri fights for women—particularly for the women of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in northwest South Dakota, the fourth largest reservation in the United States. Currently, she serves as the director of the Family Violence Services at the Sacred Heart Center, a domestic abuse shelter for women and children. Jerri’s role as a leader is a result of her own battles with the enemies of rape, alcohol abuse, and low self-esteem. Her strength and resilience now guide others to healing.
Jerri knows it takes perseverance to earn freedom from these enemies that plague many women on the reservation. Throughout her journey, she battled friends and family—even herself—to regain her dignity and find her self-worth.
A familiar face
When Jerri was young, her mother often travelled for her tribal job. Jerri’s nine siblings were already grown and out of the house, so she frequently stayed with her hunka family—friends considered relatives—when her mother was out of town.
One night, at age thirteen, Jerri slept near her hunka sister. Suddenly, a male form appeared in the dark. That night, this teenage boy, her family friend, became her perpetrator.
“I crawled into the kitchen and dialed my mom. She didn’t answer, so I crawled [outside] into the bushes and slept until morning. I went home and called my mom,” Jerri recounts.
Even though her mom took her to a health center and set up counseling to help her, the shame and embarrassment mounted. It was easier to pretend she was fine.
Of course, this was far from the truth. In reality, she was miserable because she saw her abuser on a daily basis, so she turned to alcohol and marijuana to escape her pain. She explains, “While under the influence, I felt normal—I could have a piece of normal. At home, I was sad and depressed and felt alone.”
Alcohol and drugs were a temporary escape. She was only thirteen years old, but she decided to kill herself because the pain was too great and there was nothing she could do to make it go away.
What would it take?
When her mom was at a conference, she found her father’s prescription of Tylenol 3. She took the whole bottle.
She remembers her face getting really hot. She staggered to her mom’s bedroom and fell. “My niece came home,” she says, as she explains what saved her that day. “She just had this feeling. She found me on the floor a few minutes after I took the pills.”
Although Jerri’s suicide attempt was unsuccessful, her self-destructive behavior continued.
Even though Jerri was enrolled in advanced classes and loved math and English, she started skipping classes to drink and get high. At one point, her mom even had her thrown in jail, hoping for a solution to her behavior. Jerri didn’t think she had a hope of going to college. She wanted to end her life.
“I didn’t think I would live that long. I was in several car accidents: drinking and driving. I never had a scratch. I was super careless,” she discloses. “Once, I put on a bulletproof vest and had my guy friends shoot me. I was thrown across the room.”
When this stunt didn’t work, Jerri wondered what it would take to end her life.
She had become mean and angry, especially when she partied. Finally, after an altercation with her friends, they called her on it. They wanted to know why she always acted so recklessly.
Through tears, Jerri told them about her abuse. She says, “I was yelling and telling them that I didn’t care if they walked away and that I knew I was going to go and get my dad’s gun and kill myself.”
Her friends stopped her. Out of the group of ten girls, there were eight who had been sexually assaulted. That night they discovered what they had all been hiding, why they were all self-medicating. Jerri says, “It was the best feeling—just knowing I was not alone. This was finally a moment of coping. We saved each other.”
Graduating high school became a focus for Jerri. It would not be easy. She was a senior and was seven credits behind. “I went to the school board,” Jerri shares, “I told them, 'I am finally able to accept what happened to me. I don’t want you [members of the school board] to feel sorry for me; just give me a chance.'”
With the support of her friends, her family, and her school, Jerri did it! She completed seven credits in three months and graduated with her classmates.
A woman fighting for women
Today, Jerri fights to keep the women and children of her reservation safe. Safe from the harm she and her friends faced. As the director of the Family Violence Services at the Sacred Heart Center, she meets many women who suffer in silence like she did.
- Native American and Alaskan Native women are 2.5 times more likely than the general U.S. female population to experience sexual assault.
- According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, 37.5 percent of Native American women are victimized by intimate partner violence in their lifetime.
Jerri, like so many of her clients at Sacred Heart, faced considerable odds, and although her journey has been difficult, she learned that the first step towards healing was to use her voice.
Her past trials have equipped her to use her voice to assist victims of domestic and sexual violence. She explains that victims have no control over their lives. They are in survival mode. They need support and direction.
The Sacred Heart team of advocates provides more than a place to stay. It is their mission to “eradicate violence and oppressive practices through the empowerment of individuals, families and communities in order to support justice, social change and non-violence.”
Please join the Sacred Heart Center and Native Hope’s efforts to offer support and hope to the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault who are fighting for their freedom from violence in their lives and the lives of their children.