Brenda Mitchell, Omaha, at a shawl display that was a part of the “Weaving a Healing Voice: Unraveling the Trauma of Domestic Violence,” workshop presented by the Denver Indian Family Resource Center September 16 in collaboration with the Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services.

The Message of the Shawls: Understanding the Issues of Domestic Violence

Carol Berry

“I am a survivor of domestic violence and this is my dance shawl. It represents the three times in my life that I have survived death…”

The speaker’s words are written on a placard beside her black shawl with feather designs, one of many arranged around the room, each with its wearer’s story out there for everyone to see instead of being hidden away in shame. Visitors speak softly if at all and walk slowly from shawl to shawl at the Denver Indian Center.

Themes of remembrance, fear, regret and hope are voiced there and in an accompanying workshop: “Weaving a Healing Voice: Unraveling the Trauma of Domestic Violence,” presented by the Denver Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC) September 16 in collaboration with the Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Domestic violence is “tearing apart the families and the culture on Native lands,” said Melva Romero-Caveness, incoming director of Our Sister’s Keeper Coalition (Coalition), based near the tribal lands of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in southwestern Colorado.

From the historical perspective—the legacy of colonization—domestic violence has become “almost a tradition on Native lands,” she said, raising an issue that remains baffling.

“Are we still having the same conversation we’ve been having for years about this?” queried Sandy Naatz, HHS program specialist.

“Yes,” according to many, including Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistician Steven W. Perry, who believes one reason could lie in information deficiencies, in part because tribal governments don’t have to share crime information. “How can you address a problem if you don’t have data?” he points out.

Erlidawn Roy, Meskwaki/Ojibwe, Promoting Responsible Fatherhood Project assistant

It was largely Perry who initiated controversy in 2004 when he reported that nearly 4 out of 5 American Indian victims of rape or sexual assault identified their assailants as white, prompting then-South Dakota attorney general Larry Long to challenge his findings but, echoing Perry, to assert that “If we’re going to talk about fixing the problem, we ought to have accurate information to begin the discussion.”

Long, a former prosecutor in rural South Dakota, conducted a subsequent study that found 17 percent of forcible rapes against Natives were committed by persons of a different race, according to the Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, S.D. Long also noted that BJS’s nationwide study included urban areas where Natives were more likely to be victims of violent crime at the hands of non-Natives.

The dissonant relationship of love and abuse marks domestic violence among Native people, where “family comes first,” and “keeping the family together as a unit is the ultimate (goal),” said Thompson Williams, Caddo, coordinator of DIFRC’s Promoting Responsible Fatherhood Project, who organized the DIFRC conference together with HHS.

Other programs talk about “moving apart” and “splitting them (couples and families) up,” but “we would rather understand what was going on than split them apart,” he said. “What we talk about is improving relationships within the family.”

Even with emphasis on tribal courts’ potential for prosecuting both Native and non-Native abusers on tribal lands under the recent Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA), it might be better to “put more money in the healing piece,” said Romero-Caveness, echoing a sentiment expressed by others who fear the potential for a mass imprisonment of Native men.

The concern is related to the likelihood that violence against women in Indian country is generally perpetrated by family or intimate partners, according to the Coalition and others.

In Native society, extended families living together is common, and “at what point do our loved ones cross the line, especially if there’s alcohol and parties going on?” said Diane Millich, Southern Ute, founder of the Coalition, at a candlelight vigil in 2008 held in remembrance of victims of sexual assault.

Tribal lands can seem like “a Third World country and a war zone,” Millich said at the recent conference, in that they are short on effective social programs and plagued by drugs and alcohol abuse, sometimes despite generous per capita payments and rich natural resources.

Some signs exist that domestic violence in Native families may be successfully challenged because of TLOA provisions calling for more information collection and sharing. Then there is a provision for the arrest of non-Indians on domestic violence charges. Finally, the newly formed cross-agency Office of Indian Alcohol and Substance Abuse will focus attention on alcoholism and addiction, termed “among the most severe public health and safety problems facing American Indians and Alaska Natives” by HHS.

“We must all respect each other and be willing to change. It can happen,” reads the placard beside one of the shawls. “Domestic violence is not traditional.”

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softbreeze's picture
Submitted by softbreeze on
What I am about to say is probably going to sound really harsh and mean, but, it's the truth. Yes, there are social factors that increase the likelihood of domestic violence such as poverty, a violent neighborhood, social oppression, etc. And I greatly sympathize with those having to suffer under those conditions. But, another, probably the number one risk factor for domestic violence is the social attitudes of men. This has been studied and proven by socioligists. Men who commit acts of violence against women and/or chidren, do so because they believe they have the right to do so when they are feeling angry, jealous, frustrated, etc. They have been taught and believe that they are superior to women and children, and therefore their feelings, wants, and needs, come first. And women need to understand, that marriage is NOT a mandatory social institution. Most studies have shown that across all racial and ethnic backgrounds that men who are married tend benefit from marriage and do better than if they are single, and women who are married tend to do worse than women who are single. It is an institution in modern society that is designed to benefit men, not women. My opinion is this, if a man cannot behave like the human being that he is, and instead chooses to conduct himself like an ape, than he should be thrown outside like one, and not let back, ever. The preservation of the woman, who is the mother, caretaker, educator, and nurturer of her children, has to absolutely be number one priority. The man's job is to provide and protect the family. If he can't or won't do that, then he's go to go. Period. That's the only way intergenerational abuse is going to stop.

j cooper's picture
j cooper
Submitted by j cooper on
I appreciate the content of the address of violence.I had many years of experience with violence personally.I also tried to intervene in defense of mother and siblings.This brought more abuse,and strangely enough part of this increased abuse stemmed from the ones I was trying to protect turning on myself thereby enabling the primary abuser. I presently find myself wearing a label of being an abusive man that covers a lot of "suspicions" about what I do.Most of the labelling is imaginary,fairy tales by social workers inducing fear into women associates by promoting worst case scenarios to the person who feels victimized. My point being that not all things that happen are intended to be abusive.Due to the abuse I suffered there are situations where females of one connection or another seem to feel that they have the right to do all manner of things to me,and the man is not allowed to say as much as he does not appreciate the insults and even infidelity performed by by the female. I cared for my mother after my father passed on.One of the most profound things she told me relating to the abuse she bore was what she felt was an important issue.Mom told me that she often induced the "rage" by greeting my father at the door with her mouth going.She knew her husband knew that he had done wrong,and would come home like a puppy with it's tail between it's tail hoping for understanding and forgiveness.Berating any person for their weaknesses is never going to solve the problem of spousal or child abuse.Taking the time to understand what ails the father,mother or child and supporting them as long as it takes with respect tenderness and apologizes when we show moments of weakness will likely be a long term solution. I really take exception to any one who labell one member of the species as being the cause of the whole problem.Men can be controlling,but to my many years of experience women can be very cold and controlling as well.Men can be abusive in other ways,so can women. what we need to do is get rid of the "labeller's" who are often the one's pouring gasoline on the fires of discord.