Dance shawls honor domestic violence survivors and celebrate their recovery

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DENVER – The colorful fringed shawls, adorned or austere, stood draped atop tables, mute testimony to women who have survived domestic violence. Pinned to each was a wearer’s story – a daughter torn because her father hit her mother and she loves them both; a woman with a partner who resembles her violent father, and many others.

A black shawl’s decorations represent the three times its owner escaped death at the hands of someone she loved.

“This meeting is dedicated to those who survived and those who did not survive and also to those who are just becoming aware they are in a domestic violence situation,” said a coordinator of the gathering. “It is also for the children, who are the reason some of us have survived – we cared about our children.”

October, national Domestic Violence Awareness Month, was nearly over when nonprofit Denver Indian Family Resource Center held a gathering, “Domestic Violence in Indian Country,” Oct. 25 and 27, but that was deliberate – the dates were selected after the hubbub of early-month activities had died down.

Although domestic violence occurs throughout North America, the numbers are particularly startling in Indian country, where Native women experience higher rates of physical violence than other groups, where one in three will be raped in her lifetime, where more than 6 out of 10 will be physically assaulted, and where homicide is the third most likely cause of death of Native women ages 15 to 34.

In addition to broad indicators of physical and emotional abuse are signs of more culturally specific abuse in Indian country, including competition over “Indianness,” the abuser’s use of relatives to beat up the victim, buying into “blood quantum competitions,” and misinterpreting culture to “prove male superiority/female inferiority,” according to Sacred Circle/Cangleska Inc. material at the gathering.

Teresa Bernie Fresquez, Ihanktonwan Nakota, a DIFRC family advocate who opened the gathering, said the shawls also are reminders of women who were “very isolated.”

Photo by Carol Berry Kim Johnson, Seminole/Sac-Fox, Denver Indian Family Resource Center caseworker, attended a Domestic Violence in Indian Country gathering Oct. 25 and 27 that included a shawl display to commemorate survivors of domestic abuse.

In her own experience with domestic violence, “I remember there were marches and rallies, but I would never go. I would stay at home and wouldn’t go out into the community. It’s very important for us to have events like this, to show there is a lot of hope for a good life after domestic violence. Mainly we find it in our culture – in coming together for something like this,” she said.

Fresquez said she became aware of the reality of her abusive relationship when she took a psychology class as a student at the University of South Dakota and it “was describing what I was feeling – you need awareness, you really do.”

Sidney Stone Brown, Blackfeet, DIFRC child and family therapist, said that in adulthood she understood her father’s violence toward her non-Native mother to have been a reflection of his peoples’ heritage of anger against whites, but she still chose an emotionally abusive partner and “I was being chipped away day-by-day.”

The relationships among colonization, historical trauma, the imposition of foreign life ways, and domestic violence underscored presentations at the gathering.

“Historical trauma is acted out within the family,” said Fresquez, who was sent to Catholic boarding school at age 8. “Our conquerors did what they did to cause our family systems to disintegrate.”

Theresa Halsey, Hunkpapa/Sicangu/Oglala/Yankton, DIFRC community coordinator, said that as a people, “We’re still living with our enemy” and anger and alcoholism can be one result.

Halsey, who has worked with domestic violence victims, said that “about 98 percent of women will return to the men, and we all have husbands, brothers, other family members – we have to keep the men in our lives. It’s part of keeping the circle whole.”

Brown said the Blackfeet had occupied their tribal homeland more than 10,000 years and oral history goes back 40,000 years, but the land base, government, resources, language and culture were damaged or lost through the power and control exerted under colonization, in the same way that a woman’s choices and resources are eroded or lost because of domestic violence.

Despite the lengthy Blackfeet Nation history before contact with Europeans, “We had the experience of abruptly losing it (land and culture) and achieving prisoner-of-war status,” she said.

The Survivors Dance Shawl Exhibit was to remind participants in the Domestic Violence in Indian Country gathering that “As survivors, we are beginning to dance again,” the coordinators said.