Domestic violence against Native women rampant
Bloody, in pain and dazed, Margaret looked around her bedroom and realized that all the blood she saw was hers. She had just been beaten with punishing, crushing blows that could have left her dead. One of her three children was in the bedroom with her; the other two were down the hall. The only thought Margaret had was that she and her children would die that night. Her assailant had left, but she thought it was only for the moment and that he would come back. She suffered a broken jaw and collar bone, as well as a concussion. Her face was swollen for weeks. It was not her ex-husband who so brutally beat her, it was a man familiar to the family ñ but her ex-husband was not far away. The assault occurred the night before Margaret was to return home to be with her family following a difficult divorce. Her ex-husband, she said, coveted his material possessions and she felt like she and her children were also possessions. This is not unusual in this situation. Margaret (not her real name), an American Indian woman, has a story that is familiar in the battered womenís movement and among the coalitions that provide education and shelter for the victims and their children. This story in some variation is repeated every day, every time a woman and her children seek shelter and safety. Margaret married in her late teens and had three children. Her husband cheated on her regularly, but didnít hit or kick her in the early days of their marriage ñ the physical abuse came later. ìSlowly my self-esteem started lowering. I thought the other women had more to offer than I did. I took it for years, a lot longer than I should. I was belittled. There was name-calling and pretty soon the shoving started; the slapping and pinching. ìI did the same thing many of our women did; I would say, ëWell at least he doesnít hit me or kick me.í There was a lot of denial; we live with that denial. If we admit something is wrong then we have to do something about it,î Margaret said. Margaret works in a battered womenís shelter for American Indian women. In her work she may hear stories similar to her own because it is played out in many households across the country across all ethnic lines, and on a daily ñ sometimes hourly ñ basis. Women are beaten and psychologically abused, and some die. Margaret was lucky. Domestic violence is gripping Indian country like a plague, and the incidence rate is more than twice that of any other ethnic group. Statistics are hard to come by because, as some experts claim, the rate of violence in Indian country is highly under-reported. A statistic that is often used is that an estimated 70 percent of all violence against American Indian women is perpetrated by non-Indian men. That was Margaretís case. Margaret went to bed that night, her children near her, and suddenly awoke to the blows from her batterer. Heíd entered her home and bedroom in the dark, quietly. ìI donít know how long this went on, but I just kept blocking his blows trying to stop him from harming me. I worried he would kill me and my children, then suddenly he stopped.î She said she blacked out at times. After her assailant left her room she got up and walked down the hall to check on her children, then realized she was naked. ìTo this day I donít know how my clothes came off or if I was raped. ìYou feel like you caused it. Why did I stay so long; why did I take his abuse for so many years?î All of this happened 30 years ago. Today, when Margaret tells the story, her voice quivers at the thought of that night. Just after her ordeal, she knew the only way she could get help was to return home. She said she needed the ceremonies and pow wows and family around her. She could then immerse herself in her cultural philosophy, participate in the ceremonies and find peace and healing. ìIím lucky that I had that wisdom to know that then. At that point I was apart from my religion,î she said. ìI was fortunate. I had a strong family that taught me a lot about ceremonies. I knew I would be OK if I got back, and when I started going back to ceremonies and pow wows I got my strength back.î Initially she got involved with a young motherís group that discussed domestic violence, co-dependency, parenting and children. ìWe called it parenting, and it really saved me aside from the prayer and ceremonies. I had other women around me that went through what I went through.î Thirty years ago battered womenís shelters didnít exist, and there was limited public education or even discussion of domestic violence. Margaret grew up in reservation poverty and as a result witnessed violence as a child. She watched as adults abused drugs and alcohol. ìWhen you are raised in an environment like ours with extreme poverty, the results of that are excessive use of alcohol and drugs and domestic violence. ìI believe a lot of people live with domestic violence and sometimes you grow up to think that is normal, that itís a learned behavior.î To break that cycle, menís programs are increasing in numbers not yet adequate to serve every male batterer; but the programs are tackling the problem, one batterer at a time. Many womenís shelters have education programs for both women and men, and for the general public. Many men attend the programs by court order; some attend voluntarily. Boarding schools are at times blamed for playing a negative role in todayís violence. The argument is that some men lost the traditional values and many became parents without the traditional parenting skills. ìOur people suffer from internalized oppression; it comes from hearing that our language was wrong and we believed something must be wrong with it, or itís an inferior language to the one you are forced to speak. ìWe were told, ëYour religion is heathen, you believe in more than one God,í when we actually donít. You grow up thinking a lot of things about yourself, that your life is wrong and you adopt ways of life that are foreign to you,î Margaret said. She said that when women come to a shelter they are in fear for their life, and they know they wouldnít be around if it werenít for the shelters. Work at a battered womenís shelter is not without hazards. Criticism may come from the community in such a way as to accuse the womenís advocates of breaking up families or being man-haters. Most advocates will be quick to say they are family-oriented and want the family to be healed rather than perpetuate violence. ìMy response is that we didnít do anything to break up a family: we didnít ask your grandson or son to beat his wife,î Margaret said. American Indian advocates who teach nonviolence point out that battering or violence in the family is not a traditional value.