Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Sight | Perspective

Sexual abuse survivors use traditional healing to recover from trauma on Spirit Lake reservation: 2018 Alexia Foundation professional photography grant winner

April 9, 2018 at 6:00 AM

Shauncina hugs her aunt Jada near the Crow Hill Sun Dance grounds.  Spirit Lake, North Dakota 2013 (Rena Effendi/)
Deer heads. Crow Hill, Spirit Lake, North Dakota 2013 (Rena Effendi/)

On the Spirit Lake Sioux reservation in North Dakota, victims of recurrent sexual abuse turn to spiritual and traditional healing to overcome their pain. The majority of the sex crimes go unpunished, and tribal council authorities do not provide law enforcement or prosecute the offenders.  Photographer Rena Effendi’s haunting portraits and interviews called “Spirit Lake” explore the effects of trauma and the cycle of abuse in a place where poverty, chronic unemployment, addiction, depression and suicide rates are startlingly high. The National Institute of Justice reports that 4 out of 5 Native American women experience violence in their lifetime, and more than half have experienced sexual violence.

Effendi is the $20,000 winner of the 2018 Alexia Foundation professional photography grant to continue her work. The Alexia Foundation, committed to supporting visual storytellers who educate and expose social injustice, has been awarding these grants to top professionals and students for more than 25 years.  Each spring at New York’s Syracuse University, a panel of industry professionals considers scores of proposals in the highly competitive contest.

“I feel so very privileged to be offered this opportunity to go back and continue uncovering these important stories buried under layers of stigma. As a woman and photographer from Azerbaijan who came here looking for answers, I am proud to say these women know now that they can trust me.” Effendi told In Sight. “I hope other survivors will be emboldened to step up and break the taboo. I am also happy and proud to be part of the impressive roster of visual contributors who benefit from the incredible support of this foundation.”

Here is a sampling of images from her award-winning project.

Myrna at her friend Connie’s house. St. Michaels, Spirit Lake, North Dakota 2014 (Rena Effendi/)
Devil’s Lake surrounding the Spirit Lake reservation is frozen six months out of the year. Spirit Lake, North Dakota 2013 (Rena Effendi/)
Jada burns sweetgrass to “sage” the kids and cast away evil spirits. St. Michaels, Spirit Lake, North Dakota 2014 (Rena Effendi/)
Playground in Fort Totten, Spirit Lake, North Dakota 2013 (Rena Effendi/)
Dasan, 10, has not cut his hair since he was born. St. Michaels, Spirit Lake, North Dakota 2013 (Rena Effendi/)
Boys play with pebbles in Devil’s Lake in North Dakota. 2014 (Rena Effendi/)

More on In Sight:

Child bride survivors of Boko Haram share their horrific stories and urge lawmakers to rescue others

Playful and poetic: The children of the Cheyenne River Reservation

These photos reveal what it really means to be Native American

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting an article to In Sight, please complete this form.


MaryAnne Golon is the Director of Photography at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in 2012, MaryAnne was the director of photography at Time Magazine and a senior photography editor there for more than 20 years. She graduated with honors from The University of Florida with a B.S. in Journalism.

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