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The Message of the Shawls: Understanding the Issues of Domestic Violence

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“I am a survivor of domestic violence and this is my dance shawl. It represents the three times in my life that I have survived death…”

The speaker’s words are written on a placard beside her black shawl with feather designs, one of many arranged around the room, each with its wearer’s story out there for everyone to see instead of being hidden away in shame. Visitors speak softly if at all and walk slowly from shawl to shawl at the Denver Indian Center.

Themes of remembrance, fear, regret and hope are voiced there and in an accompanying workshop: “Weaving a Healing Voice: Unraveling the Trauma of Domestic Violence,” presented by the Denver Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC) September 16 in collaboration with the Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Domestic violence is “tearing apart the families and the culture on Native lands,” said Melva Romero-Caveness, incoming director of Our Sister’s Keeper Coalition (Coalition), based near the tribal lands of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in southwestern Colorado.

From the historical perspective—the legacy of colonization—domestic violence has become “almost a tradition on Native lands,” she said, raising an issue that remains baffling.

“Are we still having the same conversation we’ve been having for years about this?” queried Sandy Naatz, HHS program specialist.

“Yes,” according to many, including Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistician Steven W. Perry, who believes one reason could lie in information deficiencies, in part because tribal governments don’t have to share crime information. “How can you address a problem if you don’t have data?” he points out.

It was largely Perry who initiated controversy in 2004 when he reported that nearly 4 out of 5 American Indian victims of rape or sexual assault identified their assailants as white, prompting then-South Dakota attorney general Larry Long to challenge his findings but, echoing Perry, to assert that “If we’re going to talk about fixing the problem, we ought to have accurate information to begin the discussion.”

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Long, a former prosecutor in rural South Dakota, conducted a subsequent study that found 17 percent of forcible rapes against Natives were committed by persons of a different race, according to the Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, S.D. Long also noted that BJS’s nationwide study included urban areas where Natives were more likely to be victims of violent crime at the hands of non-Natives.

The dissonant relationship of love and abuse marks domestic violence among Native people, where “family comes first,” and “keeping the family together as a unit is the ultimate (goal),” said Thompson Williams, Caddo, coordinator of DIFRC’s Promoting Responsible Fatherhood Project, who organized the DIFRC conference together with HHS.

Other programs talk about “moving apart” and “splitting them (couples and families) up,” but “we would rather understand what was going on than split them apart,” he said. “What we talk about is improving relationships within the family.”

Even with emphasis on tribal courts’ potential for prosecuting both Native and non-Native abusers on tribal lands under the recent Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA), it might be better to “put more money in the healing piece,” said Romero-Caveness, echoing a sentiment expressed by others who fear the potential for a mass imprisonment of Native men.

The concern is related to the likelihood that violence against women in Indian country is generally perpetrated by family or intimate partners, according to the Coalition and others.

In Native society, extended families living together is common, and “at what point do our loved ones cross the line, especially if there’s alcohol and parties going on?” said Diane Millich, Southern Ute, founder of the Coalition, at a candlelight vigil in 2008 held in remembrance of victims of sexual assault.

Tribal lands can seem like “a Third World country and a war zone,” Millich said at the recent conference, in that they are short on effective social programs and plagued by drugs and alcohol abuse, sometimes despite generous per capita payments and rich natural resources.

Some signs exist that domestic violence in Native families may be successfully challenged because of TLOA provisions calling for more information collection and sharing. Then there is a provision for the arrest of non-Indians on domestic violence charges. Finally, the newly formed cross-agency Office of Indian Alcohol and Substance Abuse will focus attention on alcoholism and addiction, termed “among the most severe public health and safety problems facing American Indians and Alaska Natives” by HHS.

“We must all respect each other and be willing to change. It can happen,” reads the placard beside one of the shawls. “Domestic violence is not traditional.”