Keeping Safe

Native women mobilize their own coalition against domestic violence

By Andrea Smith Jun 15, 2002

Native women mobilize their own coalition against domestic violence

Cindy Widell is the only domestic violence advocate for four Oklahoma tribes (Otoe, Ponca, Tonkawa, and Paw). In 2001, she received a call from two sisters who had survived years of domestic abuse at the hands of one of their boyfriends. They needed help to get their belongings out of their house. But in retaliation for her involvement, the boyfriend’s family members stabbed Widell’s son 11 times.

According to Widell and fellow domestic violence activist Jeannie Jones (Chicasaw), this kind of retaliation is not unusual. Widell’s son recovered, but his attack was an extreme example of the obstacles they face in combating domestic violence. Widell and Jones have been threatened, followed by perpetrators, had their cars run of the road, and publicly slandered for their work. In small communities where everyone knows everyone, advocates cannot be anonymous.

Another domestic violence activist, Rose Mary Shaw (Osage), says tribes often function on a "good ole boy system." Shaw has to pressure tribes relentlessly to respond to domestic/sexual violence cases. "I just stay on it and stay on it and stay on it."

In 1999, Jones and Shaw helped found the first and only Native American state coalition against domestic violence in the country. The Oklahoma Native American Coalition brings together 12 tribes to stop domestic violence and sexual assault against Native American women and children. But as longtime activsts working on the issue have found, Native peoples face many unique challenges in combating domestic and sexual violence.

Dealing With the Feds

Because Indian tribes have a unique legal status as sovereign nations, they work primarily with the federal rather than state governments to provide services for their members. Most of the money tribes use to develop sexual and domestic violence programs come from funds specifically earmarked for tribal programs through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

But federal programs tend to impose one model on all tribes, which does not account for each tribe’s specific needs. For instance, most of the training on domestic and sexual violence that federal agencies provide is geared toward states that have only one or two tribes with large reservation areas. Oklahoma tribes, by contrast, generally do not have reservations, and their land bases spread over several counties. They are forced to collaborate with state agencies to a much greater extent, which results in conflicts regarding federal, state, and tribal jurisdiction over domestic and sexual violence cases. Also, the development of culturally appropriate models for addressing violence is particularly challenging in a state that has 39 tribes whose diverse origins resulted from Indian removal policies in the 1800s.

Because tribes have jurisdiction over their lands, they must develop their own sexual and domestic violence tribal codes. However, federal policies interfere with their ability to develop the codes they want. Some tribes haven’t even yet developed sexual assault codes, mistakenly thinking that the federal government will handle it.

Sexual assault is considered a major crime as defined by a 1994 law, so it comes under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The FBI generally investigates sexual assault cases, and the U.S. Attorney’s office decides whether or not to prosecute them. The U.S. Attorney usually declines to prosecute 70 percent of all cases and rarely prosecutes sexual assault cases, particularly those involving alcohol. If a case is declined, it may be turned over to the tribe. But by this point, the case may have dragged on for more than a year. This system discourages many survivors who end up not pursuing their cases.

If the U.S. Attorney does pick up the case, federal investigators do their work with an eye toward winning a case by federal standards. But as federal standards and tribal standards differ, these investigations often do not cover the ground necessary to win a case in tribal courts. Furthermore, the federal government limits the extent to which tribes can implement their own remedies in these cases.

Lobbying For Ourselves

With their unique relationship to the federal government, Indian tribes often find that state programs neglect their needs. In particular, urban-based Native women who live in states without reservations find they have no access to federal programs but aren’t served by state programs either. Chicago, with an Indian population of over 20,000, only provided sexual assault services to one Native woman in 1993. As Shaw argues, state programs often feel that "tribes get federal monies so we don’t need to worry about them." Shaw further notes that state coalitions will not allow tribes to participate unless the state has certified their programs. But to require a Native nation to obtain state certification is to fundamentally attack their status as sovereign nations.

While the various domestic and sexual violence coalitions at the state level often have women of color caucuses, Jones and Shaw took the unique step of forming the Oklahoma Native American Coalition as its own independent organization that could address the specific needs of Indian tribes. One of the coalition’s most important benefits, Shaw says, is that it has provided a space for Native peoples to become political advocates in their own right. "We are learning to lobby on our own behalf," says Shaw, who was appointed to a state committee as a result of Native peoples’ increased political visibility on domestic violence issues.

Unfortunately, according to Shaw, some anti-violence advocates in Oklahoma have taken the coalition’s formation to be an act of antagonism and have not always fully supported their work. Pauline Musgrove (Cherokee), a domestic violence specialist with the Native American Coalition, is working to bridge the gap with the statewide Oklahoma Coalition. In particular, Musgrove says it is important to encourage shelters that are members of the Oklahoma Coalition to develop culturally specific programs that can address the needs of all women who obtain services from them, including Native women.

Native domestic and sexual violence advocates not only face challenges from mainstream society and federal and state agencies, they also face the difficulties of addressing the silence around domestic and sexual violence in their own communities. Because Native communities are so insular, the backlash Native advocates face in organizing against violence can be severe, as Widell and her son discovered.

What gives her the strength to continue despite the consequences? Widell says that she does this work to keep Indian women safe and to make a difference in their lives, because no one else is advocating for Indian women.

"I don’t want violence to have the last word."