TUCSON, Ariz. – A dozen Native American and other multi-ethnic women sat quietly in a circle of solidarity. Although strangers, they are sisters because they share many of the same challenges – substance use and abuse, violence, trauma in all its imaginable forms, and initial steps to recovery.
“Everything is not solvable at once – you have to pick and choose what to address first – but our shame should not keep us from asking for help in trying to achieve empowerment which is our ultimate goal,” said counselor and Tohono O’odham Native Caroline Felicity Antone.
Passing around a talking circle stick notched and colored to represent lots of tears, much suffering, innumerable prayers, and a hope for healing, Antone tells her gathering at Native Images in Tucson: “When I was going through my own childhood traumas living in a remote reservation farm community, there was no one available for me to talk to. I didn’t have anyone to lean on. I had no education or training on how to properly function in society and because of my frustration, tried several times to commit suicide before I started telling my story and began healing in the process. We’re all victims at some level before we choose which way we’re going to go – either stay mired in the cycle of abuse and depression, or begin to take steps to heal ourselves.”
Funded by a $500,000 federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the small staff of Native Images is still in transition; revamping its program goals, but giving women a voice is a top priority, and talking circles is how they hope to foster that effort.
“The majority of our clients are middle-aged Native Americans, in this case late 30s and early 40s, who have been physically and mentally abused through years of childhood trauma,” said Project Director Roxanna Gonzalez. “There’s a chance their own footprints could be repeated unless someone intervenes and shows them that there is another, a better, way.”
The project’s medical doctor, HIV specialist Dr. Katheryn Eagle, is of mixed North Dakota Sioux tribal background, transplanted to Arizona and raised in the White Mountain Apache Reservation before joining the program. “I hope to see, long term, that we can help our Indian women with the skills they need to get out of whatever situation or relationship they are in that’s not healthy. If we can help build confidence and teach coping skills, we’re empowering them with a way to do things differently and go forward with their life making better decisions in the future.”
The Strengthening the Circle intervention program calls for clients to meet in 10 two-hour sessions. “This is a psycho-educational curriculum where a topic is raised and discussed and an educational component is inserted,” Gonzalez said. “The first hour of the circle provides topic information and makes relatable experiences the common denominator. The second hour involves individual hands-on work where participants tell their own stories that are germane to the evening topic. It’s experimental learning if you will. … unstructured structure. Years ago, women would teach girls and men would instruct boys – there was constant talking and communication and learning were ongoing. But through the years, people have lost that kind of communication, the cultural interconnectedness, and these kinds of talking circles can help return that social cohesion.”
Antone’s lesson plans call for coverage of simple topics that once linked together help form a chain of strength. “Not knowing what help resources are available – not knowing how to talk to people to explain what the problems are – being victimized by emotional abuse to the point of paralysis, feeling lesser than less – these issues can be discussed and worked on to bring up levels of confidence. Because I’ve been there and done that in connection with most of these subjects, I speak from personal experience and the knowledge that a beaten down confidence level can be restored.”
The Native Images charter is to provide information, education and counseling. Because the program is still in the process of transformation and full counseling services are not yet authorized, the staff felt that adding Antone, a certified counselor, could accomplish all three goals by conveying information and offering peer support through women’s talking circles.
Because of cuts in many service programs, an increasing number of distressed women are calling Native Images and saying there’s nowhere for them to go, and the few places that do exist offer no confidentiality and no connection to their culture. “I hope the women who visit us can identify with this place as a safe haven where they can practice within a cultural environment and find support,” Gonzales said. “As word spreads about the effectiveness of our curriculum and more women come forth to participate, we’ll start more circles.”