A nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground,” goes an old Cheyenne proverb.
Sometimes I think it’s amazing we’re still standing at all.
Recently, several courageous Native women came to Montana’s capitol to share testimony about the physical and emotional abuse they endured at the hands of the men they loved. Their stories were heart-wrenching and tragic, filled with tears, anguish, and hope for a better life.
Violence against women is a serious human rights issue that should be a high priority for Indian nations.
Their testimony at the “Honoring Native Women by Stopping the Violence” conference is part of Montana’s collective effort to deal with the shocking revelation that one in three Native women will be raped or assaulted in her lifetime, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
More than 86 percent of reported cases of rape or sexual assault are committed by non-Indian men, and prosecution is nearly impossible due to problems with jurisdiction, the lack of rape kits to collect evidence, and a severe lack of funding for law enforcement and prosecution on reservations.
“When I read Amnesty International’s report, ‘Maze of Injustice,’ it was a real awakening about the level of violence against Native women,” said state Sen. Carol Juneau, D-Browning. “We, as Indian people, are allowing something terrible to happen and we’re not stepping up or speaking out enough to stop the brutality. I knew we had to take a strong stand to do something about it.”
She led efforts in the Montana Legislature to adopt Joint Resolution 26 entitled “Honoring Montana’s American Indian Women by Stopping the Violence Against Them.” The resolution calls on Montana’s Department of Justice, Board of Crime Control, Department of Public Health and Human Services, and other state agencies to collaborate with federal and tribal entities to aggressively intervene in the pattern of domestic and sexual violence against Indian women.
In her opening remarks, President Julia Doney from the Fort Belknap Tribal Council stressed the importance of teaching children healthy values, including respect for the role of women in tribal societies. She also emphasized the importance of restoring and honoring the traditional role of Native men as protectors to bring balance back to families and communities.
Keynote speaker Eileen Hudon, White Earth Ojibwe, of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women said talking about sexual and domestic violence is an important first step toward healing. “The silence is broken at the kitchen table,” she said, alluding to the hidden nature of the problem within families or at the hands of strangers. Victims are often too ashamed, afraid and intimidated to come forward, and many don’t expect they will get any justice.
Evelyn Hernandez, from the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, married a white man who beat her for more than 20 years, often in front of their children. She sought the help of a women’s shelter in Missoula, and began to rebuild her self-esteem and a better life for her children. She eventually earned two bachelor’s degrees and now works as an advocate for Native women.
Courageous Native women came to Montana’s capitol to share testimony about the physical and emotional abuse they endured at the hands of the men they loved.
“It was then I took my power back,” Hernandez said. “There’s hurt, there’s shame, there’s anger, but you have to get up and go on. We battered women, we need to be treated gently. We need love and a lot of patience. Please don’t give up on us. When you give up, that might be the death of that woman.”
Juneau and tribal leadership are calling for congressional field hearings to be conducted in Montana and other areas to bring attention to this national disgrace. Sens. Max Baucus and John Tester have pledged their help to do what is necessary to stop the violence. They expect to develop recommendations for policy-makers who have the power to make changes.
The United States government has created a complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that often allows perpetrators to rape with impunity, and the steady erosion of tribal sovereignty and chronic under-funding for law enforcement and health care have exacerbated the situation.
Violence against women is a serious human rights issue that should be a high priority for Indian nations. Think of the role of women in Indian families – the backbone of our nations – and the intergenerational trauma that is inflicted on our children, extended families and tribal communities.
Without justice, our women – and Indian nations at large – will be more likely to suffer defeat.
Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is president of Three Sisters Media, a proud mother of four college students, and a widely published journalist specializing in environmental and social justice issues. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.