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Causes of high levels of domestic violence against Native American women

Part 2 of 4

Conquest and colonization of Native Americans by Europeans forced drastic societal and cultural changes that have fostered the conditions of elevated domestic violence against Native American women.

Traditional Southwestern indigenous societies held high respect for women and viewed gender roles as complementary instead of antagonistic according to a 2006 article in Journal of Transcultural Nursing.

In traditional indigenous societies, mechanisms existed to prevent domestic violence and punish perpetrators. For example, marriage was an agreement between a man and a woman to live together until they agreed otherwise, which made it easy and acceptable to leave an abusive relationship according to “When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality and Power in New Mexico," by R.A. Gutierrez.

A man who committed domestic violence was often viewed as an outcast or banished from the community. While family violence was certainly not absent in New Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish, there were mechanisms in Pueblo, Navajo and Apache culture that dealt with the problem in a way consistent with their traditional view of life and the world found in “Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects,” 1998.

The cultural imperialism practiced by the Spanish and later the Americans destroyed many rituals, introduced a foreign patriarchal system and negated many of these traditional mechanisms against violence. Native Americans experienced European disease and warfare that depleted their numbers and put them at the mercy of the Spanish invaders according to “Studying Native America.”

Indians were taken as slaves and servants for the land-owning Spanish, and masters often abused their female Indian charges, according to Gutierrez. Under Spanish rule, and later by order of the Department of the Interior of the American government, Native Americans were removed from their homelands, which held spiritual and cultural importance, to lands that could not sustain their populations according to “Studying Native America.” The report also states that U.S. policies such as the boarding school program took Indian children away from their families and forcibly attempted to assimilate them into American society.

Many children were sexually abused in boarding schools and were then dishonored in their home, placing severe emotional stress on the victims, according to “Violence Against Women: Vulnerable Populations,” 2009. A generation of boarding school students grew up with incomplete cultural education, and the cultural genocide that began with the Spanish has continued – it was not until 1978 that Congress finally guaranteed freedom of religion to Native Americans.

The history of relations between the Native Americans, Spanish and Americans has forged the conditions that favor increased sexual violence in Native communities. According to “Family Violence and Men of Color: Healing the Wounded Male Spirit,” second edition, 2008, “historical trauma,” a term used to explain the violence in Native communities, is “unresolved trauma and grief that continue to adversely affect the lives of survivors of such trauma.” Continued abuse of Native Americans by the dominant society results in feelings of helplessness and depression that is carried and intensified through the generations and may contribute to contemporary violence, according to “Studying Native America.”

Europeans forced Native Americans into a state of economic dependence through warfare, disease and intimidation. The Spanish and early Americans took fertile land from Native communities and used the labor of Indian slaves and servants to enrich their own coffers. The American reservation system, although it has preserved land for Indian communities, placed Native Americans far away from centers of economic productivity. The geographic isolation of some reservations allows few services and fewer jobs, and as a result many reservation-based Native Americans live in poverty, a risk factor for domestic violence, according to a 2000 article in “American Journal of Community Psychology.” The cultural, geographic and social isolation, along with parallel problems such as substance abuse and mental disorders that disproportionately affect Native communities, makes access to resources difficult according to a 2000 article in “American Journal of Community Psychology."

Some may argue that history alone cannot explain the high rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) in Native populations. While it is true that the determinants of domestic violence are complex and varied, it is the history of Native Americans under Spanish and American rule that has created conditions that foster the elevated levels of violence. For example, a lower socioeconomic status, unemployment and living in a rural area make instances of IPV more likely, according to an article in a 2004 edition of “The Journal of the National Center of American Indian and Alaska Native Program.”

Native Americans experience a high level of poverty, which can be traced to economic marginalization by the mainstream society and the lack of job opportunities on remote tribal lands, according to a 2002 article that appeared in “Contemporary Justice Review.” Furthermore, those who experience abuse or witness violence as children are more likely to continue the cycle of violence if they do not receive help. Many children in the boarding schools experienced physical and emotional abuse, and the historical distrust of non-Native services and service providers has prevented many from obtaining help. The use of alcohol is also associated with an increased risk of domestic violence. Alcohol abuse is a problem in indigenous societies, but some studies suggest that alcoholism parallels the problem of domestic violence instead of causing it, and that alcohol problems are also based in history and trauma, according to a 2000 article in “American Journal of Community Psychology.”

The causes mentioned above may be sufficient to explain increased levels of violence of Native men against Native women. However, the reality is that most of the violence perpetrated against Native women is by non-Native men, according to the article “Maze of Injustice: the failure to protect indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA” from 2007.

The reasons for this violence may also be traced back to the history of colonization. Spanish and American colonizers have exploited Native Americans for labor and land, and sexual coercion was a common tool of the dominant society, according to Gutierrez. Throughout history the treatment of Native Americans, from the Navajo Long Walk to the boarding schools, has been dehumanizing, discriminatory and manipulative. The 400 year history of Native American contact with Europeans in the Southwest has set the stage for the often derogatory view of Native Americans in the public imagination and has helped foster perspectives that Native women are somehow inferior. These viewpoints have unfortunately been fueled even in recent times by the government; a 1968 Congressional ruling mandated a lesser sentence to a Native man if he committed an act of sexual violence against a Native woman as opposed to a woman of another ethnicity.

Current stereotypes of the uneducated “Native drunk” fuel negative public perception and may cause perpetrators to prey on Native women. The response of law enforcement and the courts can also reinforce or legitimize the behavior of batterers and sexual predators. Because of the complicated system of jurisdiction on tribal land, many cases go unreported or uninvestigated. According to “Maze of Injustice,” if a suspect is caught, cases often do not make it to court. History has taught non-Native batterers to prey on Native women, and the lack of retributive action by the federal and state courts and law enforcement supports their behavior.

In the next issue: Challenges for Native American victims of domestic violence

Kathryn Tucker is a junior at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., studying international health with a pre-medical concentration. During the summer of 2009, she received the Lisa J. Raines/AAP Undergraduate Research Grant to study causes of and response to domestic violence against Native Americans in New Mexico. This series of four articles on domestic violence is based on research that will be published in Mentis Vitae, a Georgetown undergraduate research journal. Kathryn also created a documentary entitled “Women are Sacred: The Struggle to Stop Domestic Violence Against Native Americans in New Mexico” as part of this project. Kathryn lives in Tijeras, N.M.

Research funded by the Lisa J. Raines/AAP Undergraduate Research Grant

Research approved by the Georgetown University IRB