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Prairie Band Potawatomi women finding their voice in landmark study

MAYETTA, Kan. – The first in a series of meetings to address the findings of a landmark study on domestic violence among Prairie Band Potawatomi women took place Dec. 7 on the Potawatomi Reservation.

Venida S. Chenault, Ph.D., an enrolled member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi, presented the findings of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Violence Project, a study she conducted in May/June 2009. The findings are the result of a survey mailed to all enrolled adult Prairie Band women. The survey included questions about the incidence of violence and abuse in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Questions in the survey gauged the prevalence of emotional and physical abuse, sexual abuse and stalking in the lives of tribal women.

“Oftentimes, our voice gets lost in studies.” -Venida S. Chenault, Ph.D.

Chenault said the Prairie Band Potawatomi is the first tribe to fund a study on violence and abuse among tribal members. The study will enable the tribe to engage in self-determination, using the research in pursuing policy, grants, program development and legislation related to violence and abuse.

The Dec. 7 meeting gave Prairie Band women the first opportunity to hear the findings and give their input and recommendations. “Oftentimes, our voice gets lost in studies,” Chenault said.

Among respondents, emotional and physical abuses were the most prevalent types experienced in childhood, adolescence and adulthood – 57 percent of adult women were abused by an intimate partner; 54 percent stayed after the violence, but eventually left; 34 percent stayed. Only about 4 percent of respondents left abusive relationships immediately.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents witnessed violence or abuse in the family during childhood, and 39 percent of women said their children witnessed violence against them.

Significantly, 80 percent of respondents said they never use traditional healing or ceremony to overcome the effects of abuse.

According to Chenault, the tribe’s creation and origin stories provide teachings and life lessons about personal conduct and responsibilities and the roles of men and women, but considerable disruption of these systems has occurred over history. “We’ve lost touch with our Prairie Band Potawatomi teachings.”

Chenault (Potawatomi-Kickapoo) is currently vice president of university services at Haskell Indian Nations University. She told workshop participants she was raised by capable, independent and strong tribal women and men. “My mom was a single mother, very independent and fierce.”

Despite 63 percent of women saying their confidence and self-esteem were negatively affected by abuse, Chenault said experiencing violence does not mean a woman’s self-esteem – her power – will be destroyed. She pointed out that some tribal women see themselves as neither victims nor survivors. Moreover, women who experienced violence and abuse had strong scores for belonging and social support, possibly due to the social ties and friendships formed as a result of their experiences. She also said those who always used a traditional healer or ceremony were much more likely to have high scores for self-esteem, belonging and social support.

Chenault has been influenced and healed herself by traditional cultural practices, ceremonies, philosophies and teachings that honor and respect the role and contributions of women. “If you’re grounded in who you are, you’re going to have higher self-esteem.”

Among the recommendations suggested at the workshop was a need to implement a program for tribal men who engage in violence against women. Nearly 97 percent of survey respondents supported this idea.

Other recommendations included:

  • While mainstream programs often emphasize leaving, a tribal program needs to address the needs of women who cannot leave immediately or choose to stay in relationships for various reasons.
  • A return to traditional cultural activities for tribal women, such as healing circles, to build positive social networks.

  • A need to find ways to address the respondent’s 73 percent rate of dissatisfaction with legal outcomes in domestic violence cases.

  • A need to address occurrences of tribal women as perpetrators of violence and abuse.

  • In program development, a need to include historical perspective about the role of abuse in boarding schools, its impact on Indian life and how this knowledge can be used to shape the future.

The survey had a 12 percent response rate. Nearly 60 percent of women who responded to the survey were raised in urban areas, and the majority of women experienced violence in some form. Average age of respondents was 45.5 years. “It would be a mistake to say these findings describe all Potawatomi women,” Chenault said.

The findings are a continuation of her 2004 study, Violence and Abuse Against Indigenous Women, which looked at violence and abuse in the lives of college-aged tribal women. In this study, Chenault found that despite strides made in the women’s movement and the Red Power movement of the 1970s, violence still remained in the lives of tribal women in disproportionate rates; 85 percent of participants said they experienced at least one form of violence at a young age.

One explanation for this may be a lack of inclusion of tribal women’s voices, Chenault said. “Women have not been sitting at the table. We have to find ways to take back our power as women.”

A future meeting to present the findings to the tribal council and a follow-up meeting with tribal community members is also planned.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at lorrainejessepe@msn.com.