A Burden to be Lifted: A look at the documentary The Burden of Silence

by: Veronique Hoebeke

July 30, 2012

The Burden of Silence: an Al Jazeera produced documentary film focusing on the high rate for sexual assault amongst Native Americans. Filmmaker, Tod Lending warily took the assignment having worked on projects about Native Americans before — he faced many cultural challenges. While making the film, however, he had few problems talking to the native people and getting them to share their experiences. One women, Donna Erikson, a Native Alaskan decided to speak out about her history of sexual abuse.

Burden of Silence film

She spent a large part of her life keeping her past of sexual assault to herself. She was told by her mother not say anything about it. She kept her emotions inside until one day she decided to tell. She spoke at her church about how her abuse was not her fault. Many people of the village were angry at her for saying such things while other women came to her to share their stores. An eighty year old woman was waiting at her door to confess that she had been silent about the sexual assault she experienced for seventy years. Her story proves that admitting to being a victim is not easily done.

Native American women face many difficulties when they are sexually assaulted. Not only do they have to bare the abuse, often times they are ashamed or frightened to admit what happened. Donna explains that when her male cousin first started to sexually assault her in their youth, she feared her other cousins would “know that I was dirty.” After experiencing another sexual assault in her teens her mother told her she must not say anything about it. Many other Native Alaskan women feel it is their duty to keep quiet — they do not upset their community or bring shame to themselves.

A young lady in the documentary turned in her cousin for raping her. Since then, she has been harassed by other males in the community assuming she is “easy to get.” She feels a bit of guilt for turning in her cousin because they are in the same family. Feeling the pressure to appease their family or other families in the village, many victims keep quiet letting their attacker walk free.

During the film, an elderly couple is asked if sexual abuse was common when they were in their teenage years. The couple explains that there used to be a system of tribal elders who took care of any issues that arose amongst the people in the village. If a person committed such a crime he or she would have been punished accordingly. This prevented most crimes from happening. Yet, the Native Alaskan people are not keeping with the traditions of their ancestry. Many leave their village for larger towns and those who used to uphold the old ways have passed.

This loss of a cultural identity could be one of the many reasons there is such a high rate of sexual abuse in the Native American population. Also, low income, unemployment and abuse of alcohol and other substances make a risky combination for the women of their communities. These reasons are no excuse for sexual assault. Donna clarifies to say that sexual abuse is not just a Native American issue, it is something that effects everyone across all cultures. The Burden of Silence shows its audience that sexual assault is a problem that needs to be focused on and fixed, not kept secret and silenced.


To view the documentary, go here.


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