Native people too often stand at the intersection of violence and injustice during this nightmare pandemic. In Montana, the mortality rates associated with COVID-19 within Indigenous communities are dramatic.
Approximately 7 percent of the population are Indigenous yet we account for over 18 percent of the associated deaths in the state. These statistics illuminate the depth and magnitude systematic inequalities have upon Indigenous health. Domestic and familial violence are viral problems within American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
According to a National Congress of American Indian report in 2018, more than 2/3 of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced lifetime violence (84.3 percent.) More than half of all women have experienced sexual violence at 56.1 percent and relationship-based violence at 55.1 percent. The American Indian Alaska Native murder rate is over 10 times the national average.
Considering April was sexual assault awareness month, it is imperative that we all work to unpack factors that cause all forms of violence within Indigenous communities. Healing requires that we all look inward to stop the epidemics occurring within our lives.
The missing and murdered Indigenous peoples/women epidemic has become a focal example of the many ways intergenerational trauma and systemic racism shape Indigenous lives. I myself am a survivor. I lost my sister in 2001 to murder and I also experienced both domestic and sexual violence.
While I have aimed my career at understanding the impact of trauma, I continue to be profoundly concerned by the lack of attention paid to prevention. Public health often quotes the parable of the river where babies are being rescued from a river one at a time, and someone shouts to run upstream to see who is throwing the babies in the river. This primary prevention requires us to look at the victimizers. Victimizers have been characterized as primarily consisting of non-Native men from outside our communities. Sadly, the reality is that Native individuals are too often the abusive force within Indigenous families.
Domestic violence can consist of physical, emotional, sexual, financial, spiritual, and social maltreatment. Epidemiological studies of Native communities found that women were more likely to experience interpersonal assault and to have their children exposed to trauma. These factors directly translate to increased lifelong health risks and cycles of suffering. The social isolation required by the pandemic has exponentiated these problems.
When asked about the lived experiential impacts interpersonal violence has had upon their lives, most Native women survivors are silenced by the real fears of retaliation associated with speaking out. These include direct threats of violence from not only the abuser, but their families, social networks, and a society that has come to value silence over truth.
Many upstream causal factors shape the abusers’ choices to engage in violence. Unresolved traumatic grief, historical trauma, poverty, and discrimination interact with limited access to health, education, justice, and economic opportunities to contribute to patterns of substance abuse, interpersonal violence, neglect, and high-risk behaviors. Early exposure to violent traumas including interpersonal familial violence extends across the lifespan and generations of the afflicted.
Most episodes of violence go unreported, yet those who do report are often further victimized by a justice system that is blind to the suffering of Natives and punitive to those most vulnerable. Brave survivors seeking justice recount in excruciating detail horrific abuse in the hopes of receiving justice or protection in the prescribed channels on reservations or off only to find a system refusing to provide any respite. Judges stating that assaultive events were “too old” or attributing mutual blame to situations of clear interpersonal violence and assault.
I am a Native woman who dedicated my entire life to fighting for health equity for Native peoples. I have worked for the past 20 years to promote a legacy of hope for the sister I lost to murder following her experience with domestic violence. However, the accolades I have received in my professional life feel quite empty considering the lack of power I have had to protect the dignity and safety of my own life.
Over a year prior to the pandemic, I experienced partner family member assault. It took over two years to see any justice in my case. My former partner is a Native man who experienced many traumas, but chose to turn that pain into a weapon against me and my family for two years delaying hearings, lying about receiving treatment, lying about attending veterans’ court, always lying. His mother is a sitting tribal court judge who has written to me to threaten and verbally assault me. Just weeks before the assault trial he appeared at my house in the middle of the night. He assaulted me again.
Yet, for all of this he was sentenced to 7 days for attempting to kill me. I sat in the courtroom listening to my own 911 call asking for help after he proclaimed that he “would end me.” I have not let that happen. I will not let this happen. Yet, I can no longer face years of trying to navigate the excruciatingly cruel pathway that victims of violence face when seeking justice. I choose to share my story in the hopes that others can work to transform both: the world survivors navigate seeking justice and ways to prevent violence.
A chilling detail in my case: despite the high prevalence of domestic violence in our Native communities. I was told that my case was the only time my crime victim advocate witnessed a Native woman fully prosecute a man for partner family member assault in her entire career. Most women give up, move, or change their story to protect their abuser.
So please believe our voices when we share our stories of survival. Help us advocate for ways to seek justice. Help to improve victim rights and access to services or resources to help us cope with the aftermath of trauma and broken justice systems. Advocate for legal rights for victims to strengthen consequences for perpetrators and true rehabilitation for survivors. In Montana, an individual faces more severe consequences for damaging property or livestock than human beings. This is unacceptable.
As a community we can no longer tolerate Natives being portrayed as stereotypical objects marginalized by caricatures of suffering. We are powerful healers. Our shared languages and stories have the singular power to heal our souls and futures. Indian people deserve to lead lives free from fear and full of hope. Native people are sacred. We all need to start seeing each other with true compassion to build trust and healing. Without this we are destined to remain lost. The courage of survivors will shatter the realities of violence with songs of hope.
It is vitally important that we shift the discourse around trauma to include all voices. Native people have been systematically mistreated, marginalized, and it is time for all of us to dismantle systems aimed at our destruction. We must reclaim our voices and dreams in authentic and inclusive ways. Such resiliency will honor our ancestral history of defiant survival and transcendence.
In the Blackfeet language we say Ikakimaat to our young people and that means to try hard. We all need to try harder to love each other in ways that will heal our communities and spirits. One of our teachers of the Amskapi Pikuni language reminds us today that we say Kitssiikakomim to let others know that we love them. As we emerge from this pandemic, may we all work to prevent violence by adopting this spirit of love as we navigate the difficult pathway to prevention ahead. Creating violence free futures is a goal worth fighting for within Native communities.