White Buffalo Calf Woman Society celebrating 31 years

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MARQUETTE, Mich. – Death was once the swift justice for American Indian men who battered or raped tribal women; but since colonization, some Native men have adopted the abusive ways of their white counterparts because they don’t fear a legal system that delays and reduces punishment, a crusader for women and children’s safety recently told a northern Michigan conference.

Pre-colonization justice for American Indian men who abused their wives was “carried out very, very quickly and it sent a strong message to our male relatives that this is what would happen,” said Tillie Black Bear, executive director and co-founder of the first domestic violence shelter on an American Indian reservation.

“Violence was not tolerated at all in a marriage,” said Black Bear, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation/Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “Along with being beaten, it was not tolerated at all in marriage.”

Early Lakota women owned property, kept their maiden names after marriage and could “dehorn” a man who wanted to become a tribal leader, said Black Bear, a founding mother of the national and South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

“In today’s world for tribal women, it’s pretty confusing because many of our male relatives have adopted those ways of our white male relatives in how they beat women today.”

Founded in 1977, the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society in Mission, S.D., is the oldest shelter for women of color in the U.S. A month-long celebration was held in September for the society’s 31st anniversary with numerous events on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

Domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty, teen suicide and her boarding school experiences were among topics that Black Bear shared during two talks at the Northern Michigan University 2008 UNITED Summit on a campus that has struggled to find its ethnic identity.

Despite five Upper Peninsula tribes, NMU had 214 American Indians enrolled out of 9,123 students during the 2008 winter semester. Children at the Hannahville Potawatomi Indian Community tribal school watched Black Bear’s talk live.

Four of the reservations are Ojibwe and four percent of the U.P. population claims American Indian ancestry.

Black Bear twice received an award from the U.S. Department of Justice for her work with crime victims, was a President Bush “Points of Light” honoree, received the 2000 Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award from President Clinton and received the first LifeTime Achievement Award from LifeTime Television.

Black Bear’s visit was coordinated by the nonprofit Turtle Island Project in Munising and the NMU Center for Native American Studies. The TIP has held several fundraisers for the WBCWS that provides domestic violence, sexual assault and other social services for all women. WBCWS is now facing one of its toughest challenges – stemming the alarming rate of suicide among Lakota teens and young adults.

At least 27 tribal members killed themselves in recent years and more than 400 youths have attempted suicide. And crime statistics show an increase in domestic violence and assault against Native women.

A domestic violence survivor, Black Bear told two similar stories “about how a man was handled if they raped or battered a woman especially in marriage” – one involving a gun and the other a knife but both with a lethal ending. The stories “served as a warning to Lakota males before European settlers changed their lives forever.”

In both stories a Lakota “man had sexually assaulted his wife and she went home “causing her brothers, uncles and male relatives to encourage the offender to take his own life.

The husband was given a weapon by his wife’s relatives told to “go over the hill, we don’t want to see it,” Black Bear said. “He went over the hill and shot the gun off but did not kill himself, so the brothers went and completed killing him.”

In a similar story with a knife, “he went over the hill and committed suicide – killed himself for what he did to a woman,” she said.

“Consequences were swift for women who were battered or women who were sexually assaulted,” said Black Bear. Divorce and “marriage for some tribes was a very quick ceremony.”

“All a woman had to do is gather his things and set them outside the teepee and he knew then he was no longer welcome in her home. The teepee was her domain – her home. Property belonged to us and it was ours to give or to keep.”

“Today when we get a divorce it’s such a long drawn out process – you are still married six months later,” she said.
White women who struggled for equal rights were inspired by their tribal counterparts.

“About 20 years ago feminist historians” finally noticed that “suffrages like Matilda Joslyn Gage and Susan B. Anthony got their ideas about women’s equality” from native women, she said.

“A majority of those suffrages women (were) adopted by the (Iroquois) clan mothers. They adopted many of their ideas about women’s equality from those clan sisters from the Iroquois Nation.”

“I work for tribal women to reclaim that equality that existed for us prior to colonization,” said Black Bear. She also works “for equality for our white sisters.”

Before colonization Turtle Island women “definitely had rights. With the impact of colonization, those rights were skewed.”

“Children belonged to the women,” said Black Bear, who has three daughters, 13 grandchildren, and two great-grandsons. “Our white sisters coming from Europe were the property of the men and the children were the propertyof men.”

Women’s rights should be respected just like tribal sovereignty, she said. Women’s bodies “are sacred and they are sovereign.”

“We have to go back to the place where women were considered to be sacred spiritually (and) live our lives according to that.”

“As tribal women our bodies are sovereign. There are no laws that should tell you if you can or cannot have an abortion.”

“The first teaching of the White Buffalo Calf Woman is even in thought, women are to be respected,” Black Bear said. “The second teaching is that for men, there is hope.”