Nov. 7, 2006 – As a child, Lorraine White learned how to keep silent. At her missionary boarding school, where American Indian children were taken to be educated, she was taught how to conform and listen to authority.
During the summers, White, a Dakota Indian, took those lessons with her when she returned to her home in Minneapolis, where she quietly witnessed her mother being battered. And later, submission was again a guiding rule as she endured eleven years of physical abuse in her own marriage.
About twenty years ago, White finally entered counseling and started to "unlearn" some of those childhood teachings. But now as a program manager with the social-service organization Minnesota Indian Womenâ€™s Resource Center, she sees the cycle of violence continuing for other native women.
"A lot of [native] women think that this is their life, that this is who theyâ€™re supposed to be," she told The NewStandard. Reflecting on her own family as an example, she said, "Maybe their mom was abused, and their grandma and everyone else. And so, â€˜Here I am, itâ€™s happening to me, so itâ€™s normal.â€™"
With brutality against women pervading the Native American population, activists are calling not only for protection, but also for empowerment of survivors. Building political consciousness as well as cultural solidarity, they say institutional racism has subjugated native women and men alike to an epidemic of violence.
With brutality against women pervading the Native American population, activists are calling not only for protection, but also for empowerment of survivors.
Research on gender-based violence in Native American populations is limited. But Department of Justice statistics from the 1990s, drawn from crime surveys of about 570,000 individuals, showed that native women experienced violence at the hands of intimate partners â€“ who might be non-Indians or Indians â€“ nearly three times more frequently than did white women.
Native women were also about twice as likely to be raped by an intimate partner, according to the 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey, which focused on a sample of 8,000 women.
The Navajo Nation division of public safety reports that as of late October, 1,166 cases of domestic violence had been recorded by local law enforcement in the preceding three months. The senior prosecutorâ€™s office told the Gallup Independent in New Mexico that domestic violence was a growing crisis in the local population, with recent incidents becoming more intense and more brutal.
The federal government has responded to the issue in its recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, providing funding for services to native women and for tribal law-enforcement personnel. The Department of Justice held an unprecedented national consultation with tribal leaders in September to plan the administration of the new initiatives.
But groups advocating for Indian women say legislative remedies do not tackle the colonialist underpinnings of the abuse, which are deeper and less comfortable for official institutions to broach.
Advocates argue that the abuse, along with other social problems that feed into it, originate from the sexual, economic and racial hierarchy imposed on indigenous peoples.
Viewing the current brutalization of native women through a historical lens, activists say that violence on the scale seen today is a direct outgrowth of white settlement. They argue that the rampant abuse, along with other social problems that feed into it, originate from the sexual, economic and racial hierarchy imposed on indigenous peoples.
"Violence against native women is a result of colonization," asserted Brenda Hill, a Siksika Blackfeet tribal member and education coordinator with the Sacred Circle National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women. "So how do you undo colonization? How do you undo the internalized oppression?"
On both an institutional and individual level, native activists see racism driving patterns of abuse.
They point out that Indian populations are disproportionately saddled with key risk factors for domestic violence that are also tied to the historical marginalization of tribes, such as substance abuse and economic disadvantage.
Meanwhile, racial bias surfaces not only in the victimization of American Indians but also in the profile of abusers. According to federal surveys, the majority of violence against Indians, including intimate-partner violence, involves non-Indian offenders.
Within the native community, Juana Majel Dixon, an activist with the Pauma tribe of California traces abuse by Indian men in part to "the dominant-society influence on our males."
To Dixon, who experienced an abusive relationship in her twenties, "genocidal policies" of the US government have aimed "to destroy the tribal society and its family units."
Both federal and tribal governments share jurisdiction over domestic violence and other violence against women, and both have been criticized for an insufficient response.
Beginning in the 1950s, child-welfare agencies and the federal government led efforts to systematically remove Indian children from their families and place them into adoptive homes. Similarly, the government forced native children to attend Christian boarding schools in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which severed native communities and family structures.
White said that in her local community, the connection between violence and cultural degradation plays out among young native women raised in foster care and estranged from tribal society. After experiencing a "loss of identity," she said, many are emotionally fragile and vulnerable to becoming entangled in abusive relationships.
"A lot of [these] young womenâ€¦ don't know anything about who they are," she said. "They want to be part of something, and maybe itâ€™s that [abusive] relationship."
Both federal and tribal governments share jurisdiction over domestic violence and other violence against women, and both have been criticized for an insufficient response. Native advocacy groups note that federal prosecutors frequently decline to prosecute criminal cases involving Indian territory. Tribes meanwhile have extremely limited capacity to deal with the issue on their own.
While many tribes have their own laws on domestic violence, tribal police agencies are generally severely understaffed compared to federal and state law enforcement. And while tribes can prosecute cases in their own courts, tribal court penalties are limited under federal law to at most a one-year prison sentence and a maximum fine of $5,000.
Critics also say the system lends itself to racial inequality. Tribal courts have essentially no criminal jurisdiction over a non-Indian perpetrator.
The reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) responds to some of the shortcomings in the legal system. It creates a federal felony category for "habitual offenders" with repeat convictions in state, federal or tribal courts. It also expands tribal policeâ€™s ability to arrest abusers who violate court restraining orders.
In contrast to law-enforcement strategies, some advocacy groups have developed holistic programs that use tradition to â€œhealâ€ the impacts of domestic violence.
But advocates say the legislation still leaves native women vulnerable to abuse, as long as resource shortages and virtual immunity for non-Indian offenders persist on tribal lands â€“ alongside overall insufficient recognition of domestic violence as a serious crime.
The current system, said Hill, ensures that for the most part, "non-native offenders can be picked up by tribal officers and be escorted off tribal land, but that's about it."
Beyond law enforcement, advocates say that although VAWA grants help improve underfunded social-service infrastructures for tribes, culturally appropriate support for native women is deeply lacking.
Jeremy NeVilles-Sorell, a White Earth Ojibwe member and resource coordinator with Mending the Sacred Hoop, a group that helps develop anti-violence programs for tribes, said that institutions designed to help survivors sometimes end up pushing them away.
For instance, said NeVilles-Sorell, who grew up watching his father routinely brutalize his mother, there are few battered womenâ€™s shelters that specifically serve native communities. At ordinary shelters, he added, "native women donâ€™t feel comfortable," as some white staff members make them feel culturally alienated or misunderstood.
Hill said the shelter system too often places the burden of escaping abuse on the survivor, in a way victimizing her again. "What other class of victims of violent crime are expected to go into hiding on a regular basis?" she said. "I rarely hear that even questioned, because the harsh reality is, we havenâ€™t figured out how to keep them safe otherwise."
In contrast to law-enforcement strategies, some advocacy groups have developed holistic programs that use tradition to "heal" the impacts of domestic violence.
Pamela Risling, an advocate with Niwhongwh xw E:na:wh (Stop the Violence Coalition) in Hoopa, California, said that her groupâ€™s education programs focus on "retraditionalization" â€“ reestablishing the "old, traditional style of family, and protecting the family, and taking care of one another."
Culturally based advocacy programs promote traditional clan-based social systems, which involve protective support networks that can help survivors recover and prevent future abuse. Program models draw on traditions that honor women as caregivers, as well as cultural ideals of "wholeness" and group harmony. Some programs also apply ritual healing methods, such as prayer and purification ceremonies.
Some tribal groups are also seeking to help abusers change their behavior. Groups hold workshops for Indian men who batter to help them "unlearn" abusive behavior, and in some cases, come to terms with past trauma from their own abuse experiences.
"Definitely, there has to be sanctions for an offender," said Risling, a Hoopa tribal member and a survivor of domestic abuse. "But there also need to be ways for them to join back in or reeducate themselves, and regain their role back, and their self-respect and their dignity and their place."
White said that both she and her husband underwent a healing process that helped them end the abuse. They eventually reunited after coming to terms with "historical trauma" they had carried since childhood. To end the abusive legacy, she recalled, "I had to kind of changeâ€¦ from being that meek and mild person to somebody whoâ€™s going to speak up and advocate for herself."
Dixon said that reviving tradition for female survivors can empower all native peoples.
"Our traditional system â€“ this violence is not a part of that," she said. "Women were held as sacred. And itâ€™s reclaiming that. Thatâ€™s going up against all these things that our people have gone through, and all these things that visit us from the outside world."