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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

A coalition in Minnesota is creating a space for Native men and boys to better understand sexual violence and its prevention.

Cristine Davidson, White Earth Anishinaabekwe, an education and cultural specialist at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, said the program brings men and boys into the solution.

“The work of the MIWSAC is grounded in the philosophy that each of us have a role, purpose, and place in eradicating sexual violence,” she told Indian Country Today. “When we see our menfolk as sacred, with gifts and spiritual responsibility in helping to restore our balance as a people, we are all stronger.”

“What is not talked about enough is that our menfolk across history who have witnessed and/or experienced sexual violence in their own lifetime,” Davidson said. “If we don’t name this, and make space for menfolk to do that ongoing healing and transformation work with one another, our families, communities, and nations continue to suffer.”

Davidson is a leader among leaders at the coalition. A 1988 graduate of Red Lake High School, she also served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years. She worked at Starbucks for a decade, receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 2008. She has been at the coalition for the past 15 years.

Cristine Davidson, White Earth Anishinaabekwe, is an education and cultural specialist at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition. The coalition, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, is working to engage Indigenous men and boys in an effort to curb sexual violence. (Photo courtesy of Cristine Davidson)

Davidson initiated the Native Menfolk panel, “We Are All Sacred! Prevent Sexual Violence,” and poster series through MIWSAC and made space for the sacred conversations. It was also an invitation to all who were curious and ready to work.

MIWSAC has held men’s panels, creating spaces where men can talk, learn, and plan in relationship to their own healing and in supporting survivors of sexual violence, according to the coalition’s website. The work will be built upon in 2022 with funding from the Minnesota Department of Health.

A virtual men’s panel was held in April of 2021. Here’s what several participants had to say.

David Sam, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

Mary Sam, Maajiitaaziibiikew, said she and her husband, David ‘Amik’ Sam, dedicated their recovery and healing work to the Mille Lacs Band community and across the region. They were married 30 years, and each had more than 40 years of sobriety along with “years and hard work in therapy … to end the cycle of addiction and abuse.”

She shared words from her husband in an article they wrote last spring. He died last year after participating in the panel.

“What we saw is what we learned, what we learned is how we behaved, resulting in addiction, womanizing, for some domestic and sexual violence,” wrote David Sam, a Mille Lacs Band elder.

“It seemed normal to many men in my generation. There were no people to talk to about this, as most of us grew up in similar circumstances. This is about silence, fear, isolation, shame, loyalty, and power, regardless of the cost. The fear and shame keeps many of us stuck in cycles, which many are still trying to undo.”

The cycles are rooted in Minnesota history and oppressive, patriarchal systems, leaving many “feeling afraid, sometimes ashamed, scared and protective of a perpetrator they love,” he wrote.

Reluctance to interfere also contributes.

“The systems, community rules and norms paved the way for women to be stolen, missing, abused and even killed,” he wrote. “The healing work that some of us, not many of us, have done is painful, long overdue and urgent to address.”

His granddaughter was killed by a partner five years ago, he wrote.

“Witnessing the systems, the local leaders who remain silent, communities who want to look away because it is simply too painful to name. Fear of accountability, refusing to say the words battery, murder, sexual violence, or trafficking, can no longer be accepted as normal. It is not normal.”

He continued, “The grief, anger, trauma, isolation coming from a region that ignores this trauma is painfully overwhelming and unacceptable. Few men tell their stories. It is time. It is part of our healing to create a safe community for our women, our men and our children.”

It’s time for Native people to speak out, he wrote.

“Coming from a background like many ‘old’ men of my generation, having battered in my much-younger years, it makes me feel sad to have been a part of these problems,” he wrote. “Falling back on the notion that I didn’t know any better is no longer acceptable. Victims of violence have been put there by their actions and inaction and we as a community, regardless of gender, we must change our behavior to change this.”

Darwin Strong, Anishinabe/Dakota/African-American

Darwin Strong works with adolescent boys in southwestern Minnesota, and hopes to expand the dialogue about Indigenous men. Strong is Anishinabe/Dakota and African-American, and a citizen of the Red Lake Nation.

“There has always been a severe oversight and neglect of accessible services to men.” told Indian Country Today: “What this initiative has done is a positive beginning of something. Now a decision has to be made whether or not it's going to continue. Reinforcement and support for one another doesn't occur if we don't connect.”

This poster by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition features Darwin Strong, Anishinabe/Dakota and African-American, who was part of a panel discussion aimed at engaging men and boys in efforts to prevent sexual violence. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition)

“Healing doesn't happen if we don't understand or know how to,” he said. “Non-violence, what is it if we have never seen nor experienced it in our lifetime? … We as men can express and share love with family, friends, and community.”

He said men need to ask themselves what sort of role models they are, and what kind of fathers they want to be, even if they perhaps never had one in their our lives.

“We need to know that it's okay to seek out help when needed,” he said. “We were given a mouth to speak. We were given eyes to see. We were given ears to hear. We were given a brain to process and think with. We were given a heart to feel and love with.”

In the process, they should begin to understand who they really are.

“Who are you? Where does your blood line come from?” he asked. “We are a physical and spiritual being nothing more or less. We need to learn to stand as men so we can protect our families and people. What do you see when you look in the mirror? We are a reflection of what?”

Arnold J. Dahl-Wooley, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe

Arnold J. Dahl-Wooley, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, owns a store, RV park and campground with his husband, Matthew. They’ve been together for 21 years but legally married since 2013.

This poster by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition features Arnold J. Dahl-Wooley, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, who was part of a panel discussion aimed at engaging men and boys in efforts to prevent sexual violence. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition)

He said they were the first same-sex marriage to be sanctioned by the Leech Lake Band, though it took more than two years to win support first from the tribal law offices and then from the council.

“I was honored to be a part of the men's conversation on sexual violence,” he said. “This initiative helps to reinforce healthy social norms, and the LGBTQ Two-Spirit are also a part of these social norms. Having these types of discussions helps to break down the barriers that people are sometimes afraid to discuss.”

He said public discussions from men with differing perspectives can help foster healthy discussions.

“One of my posters talks about having a story to share,” he said. “For years, my story has been reaching out to our community and beyond to educate others about the importance of equality, and why it is important to include cultural reference in our marriages on our reservations. Culturally, this is something that was respected and at times honored.”

He continued, “This is an important aspect for us to pay attention to – to end violence and to end the dehumanization of other individuals, their relationships and/or marriage. I do believe that we can end the violence, and that together we are stronger.”

For more info
The Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition worked with men to create an outreach and awareness series, consisting of 21 posters speaking out against sexual violence in Indigenous communities and noting the role men play in healing and social change. To order posters for your organization or community, reach out to contact.us@miwsac.org. The posters are also available to download.

Editor's note: Indian Country Today writer Dan Ninham was among the panelists in the discussion. 

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