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Researching violence, recovering responsibility

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Recently, the U.S. attorney general appointed members to the Violence Against Women in Indian Country Task Force. The primary purpose of the task force is to assist the National Institute of Justice to establish a research program focused on developing reliable information about violence against Native women including domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking and murder.

The task force is required, according to Section 904 of Title IX of the Violence Against Women Act of 2005. The research program, National Baseline Study on Violence Against Indian Women, will investigate the effectiveness of federal, state and tribal responses to violence against women and will help develop proposals and recommendations to improve protection of American Indian women from violence. A second part of the research program will take the form of an injury study that will estimate incidences of injuries and costs of health care to Native women victims of domestic violence.

Members of the task force have been appointed with representation from members of national organizations, tribal governments and national tribal organizations. The task force was scheduled to hold its first meeting in Washington, D.C., Aug. 20, where it would hear ideas about how to conduct research in Indian country on domestic violence issues.

Domestic violence has become a very significant fact of life in American Indian communities. The establishment of the task force and research program about domestic violence toward American Indian women is a result of national activism by Native national organizations, tribal leaders and tribal community members.

There are some research reports about domestic violence in Indian country, but there is no systematic or reliable data for tribal communities. The recent report on domestic violence analyzed by Amnesty International was based on a mix of urban and reservation data, and does not provide systematic statistical support for understanding domestic violence incidences and actions within tribal communities.

More focused and systematic research needs to be conducted to gain a more complete understanding of the patterns of domestic violence within reservation communities. The need for greater attention and research on domestic violence against Native women is clear.

What kind of suggestions for research can be given? The task force and research program should be aware of the cultural, political and historical diversity of reservation communities. There is a tendency to reduce domestic violence in family or husband and wife relations, but some attention or consideration should be given to understanding the effects of poverty and political and cultural marginalization.

The research and literature on multiple generations of stress and trauma should be integrated into the research designs as a means of gaining some insight into the causes and conditions of domestic violence incidents and frequencies. The research should not strive only to establish frequencies of domestic violence, but also should make some conceptual and empirical progress for understanding the causes of domestic violence. Individuals must take responsibility for their actions; but the historical, cultural, political and psychological conditions of reservation communities will help provide some explanation for the frequency and incidences of domestic violence.

According to recent research, when reservation residents are asked, ‘What are the most significant criminal justice issues in your communities?’ they often respond that drug and alcohol abuse are the most difficult issues. In many cases, drug and alcohol abuse leads to domestic violence and child neglect, but not always. (See the recent report by the UCLA Native Nations Law and Policy Center.)

Much crime and violence in Indian country is committed when people are under the influence of drugs and alcohol. We need to understand why there is so much addiction in Indian country, and why addictions lead to crimes such as domestic violence.

A major puzzle for researchers and communities is that few Indian communities recount traditions of extensive domestic violence in their histories or cultures. So why is there so much domestic violence in contemporary times? Traditional tribal communities had ways for managing domestic violence situations.

The rules of divorce and women’s social power are well understood among the matrilineal nations of the Hopi and Iroquois. Women were protected by families and clans, and a woman divorced the man by putting his belongings outside the door. The women were supported economically and socially, and thus had considerable freedom and choice.

Where are the community and cultural institutions for protecting Native women from abuse in contemporary times? Contemporary police and courts do not provide adequate protection to Native women, while families did a much better job in traditional times. During the colonial period, police and courts took over the management of crime; and tribal social forms, including family rights and obligations, were officially ignored. Many tribal communities are currently working to recover tribal culture, but such recovery should not be restricted to ceremonies, dances and songs. It must include community and family responsibilities to protect children and women.

The contemporary problems of domestic abuse will not be solved by fine-tuning court and policy methods. Any full solution needs the observance of traditional tribal community, family rights and obligations to protect family members. Communities themselves must resolve and recover the means to protect families and women. In the contemporary world, courts, police and tribal families must work together to protect women and children. Without cooperation, protection will be insufficient.