Task force speaks out on domestic violence

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. - The Department of Justice has determined that American Indian women experience violent victimization at a higher rate than any other U.S. population, a statistic that has been used as a call to action for several organizations to join forces to protect indigenous women.

Clan Star Inc., through partnerships with the National Congress of American Indians and the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, is working to restore the traditional values of tribal culture to help hinder the devastating plague of domestic violence and sexual assault on American Indian lands.

''Our end goal is to ensure that safety for Native women is realized,'' said Terri Henry, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation and the principal director of Clan Star. ''And how we can do that is to end violence in our communities.''

Clan Star works to restore the safety of American Indian women by addressing domestic battering, sexual abuse, stalking and torture in Indian country. The organization works with more than a dozen tribal domestic violence and sexual assault groups and coalitions from throughout Indian country.

Jacqueline Agtuca, director of public policy for Clan Star, and Henry spoke to a group of students, staff and community members at the Syracuse University College of Law on April 11. The directors of Clan Star spoke on the topic of ''Domestic Violence in Indian Country: How Sovereign Nations Protect Indigenous Women.''

Henry shared a story of the traditions of her community, the Cherokee in North Carolina. She said that before contact with the Europeans, the Cherokee community had traditional values and they protected their women.

''It was a matriarchal society and when married, the man took the clan of the woman,'' she said. ''And he would live with her and her family.''

In this tradition, there weren't issues of domestic violence like there are today because the woman's family was there to protect her if a situation were to arise, Henry said.

According to Agtuca, the Justice Department has also determined that more than 1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped in their lifetime. She introduced the Syracuse University community to the story of murder victim Victoria ''Vicki'' Eagleman, from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. Eagleman was found dead in August 2006 after she had been missing for more than a month.

Eagleman's death and the lack of support the tribe received from state and federal departments angered the community, which banded together and held a walk to speak out against domestic violence in Indian country. The walkers urged the community to never forget the name ''Vicki Eagleman.''

Agtuca said that when fighting domestic violence and sexual abuse in Indian country, it is important to remember that it is not just services that are needed for victims: it is also extremely important to recognize the need for improved legislation in the federal government.

''The greatest barrier, often, to a Native woman is the fact that the laws that protect women off the reservation are not the same as the laws that protect women on the reservation,'' Agtuca said.

In January 2006, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act and included an unprecedented title that recognizes American Indian women's unique circumstances. Clan Star calls the legislation a turning point, but Agtuca said, ''There is more work to be done.''

''We have joined an alliance with national organizations to reform federal legislation so that all women will be safe,'' she said.

For more information on Clan Star Inc. and VAWA, visit www.clanstar.org.