“Healing,” answered Executive Director Corrine Sanchez to the question about Tewa Women United's foremost organizational priority. “Healing is what we need most. We want our children to have strong Native identities, awareness of Native values. This is the piece that guides our direction. The kids themselves want to know how to contribute, they want financial literacy, they want the violence in their families to end. They want to know how to sustain themselves, how not to drink, how to do their jobs. They want boundaries, and they want a voice in the policy decisions that most affect them.”
The monthly “Counter Narrative” program at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque on March 16 was billed as an opportunity to “meet the women of Tewa Women United, a nonprofit empowering indigenous women to become positive forces for social change.” The evening began with a soothing prayer around the “centering table” laden with symbolic objects such as blue corn, fetishes and seashells. It was offered up in Tewa language which, although endangered, is still spoken by an estimated one to two thousand pueblans along the Rio Grande.
The unfamiliar sounds susurrated, infusing the atmosphere in IPCC's auditorium with spirit, with seriousness of purpose and a sense of the sacred. All 75 people in attendance stood, many with hands palm-up slightly cupped, and prayed for an end to violence against women, girls and Mother Earth; prayed for the building of beloved families and communities.
A round of introductions among TWU's program managers was a mash-up of the nomenclature of professional non-profits and the women's (several of whom were victims of sexual violence themselves) almost poetic voicings of their deepest aspirations for those they serve: body sovereignty, healthy sexuality, healthy relationships, youth leadership, women's economic freedom, environmental health, circle of grandmothers, community doula, reproductive health... the “strands of the braid,“ according to Corrine Sanchez.
The origins of the 26-year-old organization are in peer support among the Tewa-speaking pueblos, which are Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara and Tesuque. Women of the six communities came together in rural Rio Arriba County to help each other transition their losses and abuses, including substance abuse. What they found, according to Corrine Sanchez was that “we had the strength, skills and knowledge we needed for healing. We asked ourselves, how do we get through the trauma to a place where we can talk about healing? This became our research methodology—using Tewa values: Tewa language, tradition, practices.”
Going back decades in memory she recalled that their advances were often seen as being “against tribal leadership, against men.” This misunderstanding had the effect of making them stronger, even more committed and focused. “We started to look at gender-specific programming centering on our Tewa women, centering on women's concerns of family budgets, child care, education and schooling.” It also affected their structure. She explained that the choice to become a stand-alone 501(c)-3 was so the organization “was not tied to any tribal government, and we could be independent and pursue our agenda of confronting sexual assault and domestic violence.” Their practice, according to Sanchez is deeply rooted in anti-colonialist work. “In our meetings we make room for dream space, for prayer space, for asking for strength and guidance. This is how we sustain our energies and health. In long-term battles on issues where we have not always seen people standing behind us.”
The last 26 years have largely been spent doing the work of crisis intervention, developing sexual violence prevention tools. “We asked ourselves how did we get to the place where women are seen as body parts instead of for their intelligence, integrity and beauty?” Tewa Women United developed a doula program for parents to bring new life into the world “with intentionality” and to fundamentally support parents so “we can continue with our continuance.”
Courtesy Indian Pueblo Cultural Center
Tewa Women United
She further explained: “We focused on attachment and bonding, understanding that raped women could have issues. We wondered for raped women, what might that mean in connection with breastfeeding? We concentrated on family bonds, on the mother-child bond. We braided the strands of theories of Western academia and or own ancient traditions—things that we know work.”
In a political environment of decreasing governmental support for behavioral health services, (according to Corrine Sanchez “budgets for the agencies delivering services in Rio Arriba County have been slashed, money has been cut”) Tewa Women United stands as a bastion of hope. Especially for the estimated one out of three pueblo women who without intervention will be raped in their lifetimes, as well as for the children who are estimated to become victims of sexual abuse and violence at alarming rates: one in four girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18, one in six boys. Because of these grim realities their focus is understandably on trauma or traumas—historical, inter-generational, and individual-complex—and their interrelations. “We cry a lot in this work,“ Sanchez said.
But the work goes on, the organization advances in ascendency, and the successes when they come are glorious. Tewa Women United is in the process of purchasing their building, a feat that Sanchez characterized as “a huge economic gain for our women.” An empty lot behind the Española City Hall is being transformed into a “Healing Foods Oasis.” Under the auspices of their Environmental Justice Program spearheaded by Corrine Sanchez's mother Kathy Sanchez, they're terracing the lot, planting healing herbs and raising money to purchase plants, seeds and stones. In the name of food security they're working to educate the Española community on traditional rainwater harvesting and dry land farming techniques. “When you put it in prayer, things happen,” said Kathy Sanchez.
Internally to their organization they're returning to the lunar calendar. They'll be basing their goals and objectives on a different sense of Time, measuring their progress against New Moons and Full Moons, reclaiming the clock and integrating Indigenous wisdom into their planning. In Corrine Sanchez's view all of their various works are predicated on one core project: “We are building Indigenous knowledge. Our culture is our strength. We are putting Indigenous ways forward for the betterment of our Native community. Most especially for our healing.”
The program ended as it had begun—in gentle prayer, in Tewa. Everyone left with a lavender pouch from the Circle of Grandmothers. Kathy Sanchez told us: “When being informed of the trauma gets heavy on your heart and you're in a stressful mode, take out your lavender pouch. Breathe in the herbs, burn the sage, chew the root. This is a gift from your grandmothers.”
Frances Madeson is the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village and an arts and social justice writer.