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Respect and care for women is primary

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The abuse of women and children by men is a shame in any society. Among American Indian nations, with traditional cultures that exalted the highest value of sacrifice for "the people," it is a contradiction of everything that can be held dear.

National statistics show that one of every three American women is battered repeatedly and nearly half have suffered domestic violence. According to the Department of Justice, among Native American women, the incidence of rape and sexual assault is estimated to be perhaps as high as 3.5 times the average for other races. Although about 90 percent of American Indian victims of rape and sexual assault reported an offender of a different race, nevertheless, there is no doubt that this is very much also an Indian problem.

Most tragically, domestic violence and sexual assault are the dirty little secrets within too many American Indian families; which are often so ashamed or intimidated that they can not even talk about the issue and thus get stuck in cycles of violence and degradation that should pain the heart of any decent man.

We use the term "man" on purpose, because this editorial is directed at the men who are perpetuating this horrible and abhorrent behavior that has increasingly beset Indian country in the past several decades. While it is true that the institutionalization of whole Native generations is largely to blame for introducing this type of behavior, we believe it is time for all decent men and women in Indian country to express their opposition to domestic violence, in every way possible.

To their great credit, it is the women of the Indian nations, by and large, who moved ahead to confront the problem. And as general education about such abuse becomes available, more women are fighting back by reporting their situations. Women and family shelters help a great deal. They are crucial to breaking the cycle. We call upon all good men to lend support to the women and projects attempting to deal directly with this issue. It is time that men take responsibility for the general moral degradation that such behavior inflicts upon our communities.

We express the highest respect for strong social advocates like Tillie Black Bear, Director of the White Buffalo Calf Women's Society, which runs a shelter in Mission, South Dakota; Cecilia Fire Thunder of Cangleska Inc., a program to combat domestic violence on the Pine Ridge reservation; Karen Artichoker of Sacred Circle, a woman's advocacy group in Rapid City, S.D., which aims to educate not only Native women and men, but also police forces and counselors about the price of domestic abuse in Indian country; and Gwen Packard of Morning Star, who helps organize shelters in Albuquerque, N.M. They are representative of the thousands of Native women who have taken up this duty throughout North America. All agree, as Fire Thunder points out, that the cycle will not be broken until the culture of silence about abuse is shattered.

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Among men in this developing field, we salute Bob Prue, director of the Healthy Relationship Project, a joint venture between Haskell Indian Nations University at Lawrence, Kansas, and the University of Kansas, which works to educate Indian students about domestic abuse. Prue reports that patterns of abuse often find their way onto college campuses. His hope is that raising students' consciousness of the problem will help stem the tide of abuse in Indian country.

Changing the behavior of both abusers and victims is crucial.

Forcefully and consistently explaining to young men the shame of such behavior is paramount. Abusers must learn to change their behavior, channeling their motivations into non-violent ways. It is even more pressing that victims find the empowerment to not be afraid to report violence against them by boyfriends and husbands. This is the way to break down the wall of silence that advocates like Fire Thunder describe.

One of the biggest problems abused Native women run up against are poorly trained counselors, according to Artichoker. Many counselors do not understand the seriousness of the violence facing these women. She stresses that tribes need to heed the call about domestic violence and honor their female relatives by providing services for abused women.

Now, V-Day, an international program and movement to stop violence against women and girls, has launched an Indian Country Project. Suzanne Blue Star Boy, director of the Project, points out that violence against Native women and girls is at an epidemic high. While the focus of V-Day is to raise awareness of the international problem, this coming year the campaign will spotlight the situation of Native women in the U.S. and Canada. In February and March of 2003, the initiative will organize hundreds of events worldwide to bring attention to the issues facing Native women.

It is time this horrible cycle of abuse is broken. Women are leading. Men must do their part by finding and realizing their power is best found not in violence but in humility, that core tenet of every moral Native tradition. And our community men must also realize that alcohol and other destructive substances have no place among the bounty of our good foods and medicines.

For women in an abusive home, help is available. For help to escape from a domestic violence situation, call 1-800-SAFE or a local shelter. Those who want to help battered women should contact local police or women's shelters to find out the best way to be of assistance.