By Michelle Chen Jan 06, 2009

Rising from the flat South Dakota landscape, the Lulyahan Oti shelter is a testament to a core value of the Oglala Lakota: fortitude. The modest building houses the only program of its kind for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault on the isolated Pine Ridge Reservation.

Lulyahan Oti is the centerpiece of Cangleska, a grassroots group that integrates the Lakota culture with mainstream social services. Led by Native women, the organization offers temporary housing and culturally based counseling services. Cangleska staff also advocate for survivors as they navigate the law enforcement and court systems. The group campaigns nationally to raise awareness of violence against women in Native communities. According to federal data, Native women are far more likely than women of other ethnicities to experience abuse at the hands of their partners.

Cangleska’s origins go back more than 20 years, when local activists successfully pressured the tribal government to establish a law against domestic violence. At the time, there was little public recognition of the issue, but the group obtained seed money in a very creative way. “We wrote a grant for preventing at-home injuries to women,” recalled cofounder Karen Artichoker, “and talked about domestic violence.”

Cangleska’s approach centers on tribal cultural values—spirituality, family relationships, connection to nature and honoring women as “sacred life-givers.” In contrast to conventional shelters, survivors—who often come to the organization through referrals by law enforcement—receive care from women who share their background, and they can draw from traditional healing resources like sweat lodges and spirit-based ceremonies.

Alongside services for survivors, the organization offers rehabilitative programs for former perpetrators of domestic violence, with the mission of preventing abuse and reintegrating men into their community. Former abusers are treated not as outcasts but as clients, challenged to reorient their behavior around concepts of manhood grounded in tribal tradition.

“These guys are our relatives. They’re our sons, they’re our grandsons, they’re our nephews,” Artichoker said. “And we believe that there’s a goodness in all people and that everybody does want dignity and quality of life.”

Cangleska sees structural racism and social instability at the root of violence against women. Their model tackles domestic abuse as part of a continuum of inequities facing Native people, from economic gaps to underfunded public services to dysfunctional tribal governments.

“We live with violence every day,” Artichoker said. “You see the unrelenting poverty and the impact of that poverty on the development of families—it’s unquestionable.”

Cangleska has launched a nationwide project, Sacred Circle, to help other tribes develop their own intervention programs. And the group has branched out into economic development as a way to foster community stability. They recently launched an auto garage as part of a long-term strategy of empowering clients and families with sustainable local jobs.

“Whatever people need, whatever their belief system is,” Artichoker said, “we try to accommodate and help them so that they can be strengthened and look at their options and make decisions about their lives.”