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Shy of five feet tall and barely 90 pounds, she stands in the doorway of her modest wood home and for a moment looks like any preteen in a FILA sweatshirt, jeans and hiking shoes clutching a gel pen and private notebook -- a little girl on the cusp of adolescence.

But the 12-year-old Saulteaux Cree girl living in this clean and claustrophobic cottage with her parents and six brothers won't lift up her eyes. The hand she reluctantly offers, its nails aglitter with blue polish, is limp. She shuffles over to a couch and flops onto a spot where she is hidden from view.

Six weeks ago, she had an argument with her mom and, fuming, went out for a walk. Several hours later, she was lifted out of a pickup truck -- beer-soaked, bruised and bleeding -- and left at a farmhouse in the dark. Her name is now protected by a publication ban.

Three young white men -- ages 20 to 25 -- from Tisdale, a farming town separated by a 30-kilometre yawn of dirt road and rural highway from her home, were each charged with one count of sexual assault and one count of being party to a sexual assault.

They were released from custody and returned to their jobs in welding, construction and steelworking within a few days. One has now hired Prince Albert's most famous lawyer, Clyne Harradence, to defend him. Last week they elected a trial by judge and jury and have not yet entered pleas.

"They are extremely well-regarded -- one comes from a highly regarded farming family and another is well thought of at his workplace," said Melfort lawyer Stu Eisner, who is representing the 20-year-old. The men contend no force was used, he said.

Hopelessness is stewing along with anger among the off-reserve natives who surround the girl's blink-and-it's-gone community -- a cluster of houses and a PetroCan station 20 minutes from Greenwater Lake Provincial park, several hours northeast of Saskatoon.

The men made their first court appearance in Tisdale's civic centre while the girl's father was driving her to Saskatoon to see a specialist. At the second appearance, native supporters and kin other than parents were kept in a hall as the three local men appeared before a judge.

"She's just a little girl -- they're not taking this case seriously" said her father, Pete, shifting restlessly in a chair at his kitchen table and tensing a forearm crudely tattooed with his surname. The mother hovered in the background, too shy to speak as she tended to their two toddlers.

A white businesswoman from Tisdale, whose own son knows the accused, says cynically, "You know the cliché -- it's just a native girl."

When she does look up furtively, she is beautiful. Big brown eyes, long silky hair and a heart-shaped face -- a Cree version of Jennifer Lopez, only much younger.

As the second-oldest of seven children, stuck in a small house and a community amid forests and farms, walking was her comfort and escape. After the argument with her mom that Sunday, the last day of September, she had wandered 11 kilometres from her home to Chelan by dinnertime.

She thought about calling home but she didn't. She sat down near a bar instead and dug through her purse. Three men came out, and she said Hi.

"I thought Pocahontas was a movie," she recalled one of the men saying.

She was offered a ride, she said in an interview. However, Mr. Eisner said instead she asked for one.

"C'mon, you can trust us," one of the men had told her. "I thought they were going to be nice," she said.

In the truck, she was handed an open beer, hesitated at first but then drank it. She lied to them about who she was -- she told them her name was Richelle and she was 14 years old and that she lived in Saskatoon. New beers were opened for her. "She did obtain beer from them," confirmed Mr. Eisner.

From the girl's home, Mistatim is a 15-minute joy ride down a dirt road that sees little traffic.

It wouldn't be a destination at all were it not for the Mistatim Hotel, a dreary rural saloon with peeling paint and a homemade sign that points to the cafe/lobby.

On a November afternoon, the bar is empty but for one table of three old-timers, a weedy poodle named Barney wearing a denim dog jacket, and the harpsichord sound of a video lottery terminal.

Children are regularly seen in her establishment, said proprietor Darlene Hill, despite its pool table, red velour banquettes and Budweiser pin-up posters. She is licensed for family dining -- and the girl's family members are familiar customers. So the girl's parents question why nobody intervened when this recognizable 12-year-old showed up on a Sunday night -- according to her own account, stumbling from intoxication -- with three white men in their 20s who had come to buy more beer.

At the mere mention of the event, Ms. Hill's face loses colour. Her eyes well up.

"I'm not supposed to talk about it," she said. But then she sits down.

"I've been licensed for children for 11 years. There are truckloads of kids through here all the time. They [the men]didn't look their age," she said adding, "This 12-year-old, she's ruined . . . But I don't think it's a racism thing."

The girl recounts the visit to the Mistatim Hotel.

She alleges that one of the men told her, "If I go in the bar naked he would make sure everyone would give me money," she said. "I said no. I was already getting scared."

She stumbled into the bar, and fell again on the way back out, she said. And then she blacked out and came to with men on top of her, one after the other, she said. Then she blacked out again. Later that night, she was dropped off at the farm of a friend of hers, a boy by the name of Jesse. He took down the licence plate of the pickup truck before it careened away into the night. His father drove the girl directly to the hospital in Tisdale.

She woke up feeling sick, with her "private parts" sore and bleeding and unable to walk properly. She asked the nurse to keep her father out of her room -- she was too embarrassed to see him.

"There is no allegation from the girl that force was used," Mr. Eisner is quick to point out.

She bled for two days and developed an infection requiring antibiotics. Last Sunday, she took the family car and drove it herself to Saskatoon because, she said, she is so afraid. Her parents had to come and get her. The local RCMP considered pressing charges.

"They are going to use that against her," said her father Pete, who bristles with an angry energy. He does not trust that the justice system will serve an aboriginal in a rural setting.

He is making a mental list of things he believes will be dragged up to impugn her character: the time she broke into the local swimming pool where she worked to play a practical joke, whether or not she acts and looks her age, and taking the family car to Saskatoon without a licence.

At the Tisdale courthouse, one of the supporters of the accused told Pete's cousin that his daughter "deserved what she got."

The sign that welcomes a visitor to Tisdale proclaims it as the "land of rape and honey," an uncomfortable throwback to the time canola, grown in abundance in the surrounding countryside, was known as rapeseed.

With a population of under 4,000 inside the town boundaries, Tisdale is a not a place where a person can live anonymously.

The accused -- Jeffrey Chad Kindrat, 20, Trevor Dean Edmondson, 24, and Jeffrey Lorne Brown, 25 -- have reputations as "partiers," but nothing worse than that according to a local businesswoman.

Mr. Brown's parents own the Hi Fashion store on the main drag -- conspicuous in Tisdale for carrying the kind of brand-name sports mules and baggy pants associated with urban youth.

The accused "haven't been in a pile of trouble," said Sergeant Ken Homeniuk, who runs the Tisdale RCMP detachment.

Releasing them from custody without bail conditions is not unusual in a case where the accused have no prior records, have parents in town and are employed at full-time jobs, he said.

"You'd never see three Indian men accused of doing this to a white girl released without bail," protested Alvin, a relative of the girl who shares her surname. "They'd still be in jail."

Racism? "Absolutely not," Sgt. Homeniuk said.

The second time the accused men appeared before a judge, the girl's supporters were kept out of the Tisdale court -- a meeting room in the civic centre -- simply because it is so tiny and it was already full, he said. Her parents were inside.

"There was no intent to keep people out of court," he said.

And yet the courtroom had extra security in anticipation of trouble.

With a preliminary hearing set for Feb. 18, the trial is months away -- the girl will testify at both, unless a deal is struck to keep it out of court.

Meanwhile, the girl has gone back to her Grade 7 classes, where she feels "everybody knows." If she thinks about what happened, she starts to cry and can't get her work done. She blames herself. Her sleep is interrupted by crying jags at night. She won't go for walks any more.

"She is like a different person," said her father. Then he too averts his eyes and gulps in air, in a quiet, angry sob.

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