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Are more Native women abused or more reporting abuse?

Fifty percent of women in America will be battered in their lifetimes; one of three are battered repeatedly every year.

That statistic alone is frightening, but new evidence points to numbers even higher for Native women and Sacred Circle, a woman's advocacy group in Rapid City, S.D., wants to educate not only Native women and men, but also police forces and counselors about the price of domestic abuse in Indian country.

Although it began as a voice for Oglala Women, its message has gone beyond just speaking for Lakota Women who are abused.

Director Karen Artichoker recently took her message against domestic violence to Albuquerque, N.M., where the organization held a conference to instruct groups on domestic violence issues and Native Women

"This is the first conference we have given out of state," Artichoker said. "It is a really new field in Indian country."

"I think it is appropriate training for Indian people working in domestic violence," said Gwen Packard of Morning Star, a part of domestic abuse programs in Albuquerque.

"Most of the places that Native women go are to non-Native shelters, they are here in Albuquerque. Ten years ago I did a study on violence in Indian country. That was when I first became aware of the growing movement, the battered women's movement. I am a formerly battered woman. Everything gets you moving in that direction. I feel very positive, the Violence Against Women Act was signed in 1994. To me that is significant. It sent a loud message across the country that violence of women won't be tolerated."

Role playing was a part of the training for advocates. Many male participants said they found it a particularly rude awakening.

Sacred Circle workers say that as tribes fight for sovereignty issues, Native women need to fight for their own survival and the survival of their own sovereignty.

Sacred Circle provides resources to help enhance the tribal justice system's ability to provide for victim safety; expand tribal law enforcement's capacity to respond correctly to domestic violence calls; increase community awareness and grass-roots support for a coordinated community response for victims of domestic abuse.

In materials it circulates, Sacred Circle points out that violence against women is not considered natural in Indigenous societies and is a recent phenomenon, the a result of colonization and the oppression of native nations.

Violence against women was not tolerated and if it did occur, it was considered a very serious offense, the material continues. The reservation and boarding school eras of Indigenous people in America further eroded identities of both men and women in their own culture.

The historic view of Euro-American colonizers was that women were chattel and were owned by their husbands. Laws of the colonizers allowed husbands to beat and to rape their wives with no punishment. Not until the 1980s was marital rape considered a crime because of the hold over of old English Law.

This ownership of women became, through the colonization process, a part of Native culture also within the last 100 years or so, Sacred Circle holds.

Native women, once highly regarded in their own culture began to be the victims of abuse; physically, spiritually, economically and emotionally as the dominant Euro-American culture took over Native culture.

Domestic abuse advocates want Native women to understand that abuse is not love, but an exertion of power and that a battered woman doesn't deserve it.

A big concern of Sacred Circle is that the numbers showing abuse against Native women are not actual because of under-reporting by the victims.

Although it isn't in the shelter business but rather the business of training, its mother organization Cangleska Inc. is. Artichoker said Cangleska provides shelter and direct services on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

"We hope that people in various disciplines and the criminal justice system, will be better prepared to respond to domestic violence in a way that doesn't re-victimize women or endanger them." Artichoker said. "Domestic violence is a really big issue and the police forces have to respond to them."

With many tribes receiving money to fight domestic violence, Sacred Circle has to double efforts to help train advocates and those in the criminal justice field.

Artichoker said one of the biggest problems abused Native women run up against is poorly trained counselors. Often those who counsel women in domestic relationships are counselors whose specialty is substance abuse.

"If a community gets some dollars to develop a domestic violence program and they don't really have anybody who has done that work because you haven't had that kind of program before, you are more than likely going to turn to your human services and chemical dependency people. They are going to develop the program based on what they know and some of those actions can get women hurt.

Artichocker said when a woman is battered and tells the counselor her husband drinks and beats her, that counselor "may tell her she needs to go to co-dependency treatment. This woman is running for her life! That is an inappropriate response, but a common one. Social services may tell her that if the man is back in the house, she will lose her check."

Artichoker believes tribes need to heed the call about domestic violence and honor their female relatives by providing services for abused women. Many tribes have heard the call, but she added it is unclear whether the message is getting through to women or if the acts of violence have increased.

"It's a Catch 22. Is it that women are reporting and coming in because we are doing such a good job of educating them and letting them know the services are available or is violence increasing? We really don't know."

For women in an abusive home, help is available. Shelters are set up all over the United States. For help to escape from a domestic violence situation, call 1-800-SAFE or a local shelter. Those who want to help battered women should contact local police or women's shelters to find out the best way to be of assistance.