Only four out of 100 residents of Montana’s Blackfeet Nation feel safe, according to Wendy Bremner, a victim’s specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Children on this 3,000-square-mile reservation near the United States-Canada border experience adverse events at more than three times the national average, with 75 percent of them dealing with unresolved trauma. This is contrary to Blackfeet tradition, which calls for song, storytelling and ceremony to help the people overcome anything, Bremner said.
“Safety, love and beauty [were] replaced with trauma, fear and shame,” she said. “Is abuse, turmoil and confusion the new norm for a people that once lived in such beauty?”
Bremner’s answer is no. This past spring she was one of 11 Blackfeet women and one man to attend a workshop to produce digital stories to raise awareness of domestic violence and promote healing. The four-day workshop, hosted by Blackfeet Community College, storytelling company nDigiDreams and the University of Montana, was part of the Native Women Rising project.
Inspired by One Billion Rising, a global movement to end violence against women, Native Women Rising is a grassroots group trying to heal Indian country and end domestic abuse and sexual violence in Indigenous communities.
It gained momentum as Congress considered reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in early 2013. The act called for unprecedented protections for Native women.
One thing missing from the movements supporting VAWA, however, was individual Native voices, said Brenda Manuelito, Navajo, and cofounder of nDigiDreams.
“Storytelling runs in our blood,” she said. “It’s part of our DNA. We knew we could take the concept of digital storytelling and indigenize it.”
The Native Women Rising project aims to tell stories that heal individuals and communities, Manuelito said.
“It helps educate, advocate and bring awareness to people making policy or funding decisions,” she said. “As Native people, we need a lot of that. We need to….reach into people’s minds and bring awareness, and reach down…into their heart so they have that compassion for other human beings.”
Manuelito and her business partner, Carmella Rodriguez, have worked with 50 tribes in 15 states to produce more than 1,200 digital stories.
“If you get a group of committed people together, enormous change happens,” Manuelito said. “If you get a group of Native women together and you create a container of trust and hope, focusing on something positive and beautiful, it all comes together.”
The springtime workshop, held in March, was the second hosted on the Blackfeet reservation. It drew Natives representing several generations. Organizers invited professionals like Bremner to make digital stories advocating for education and change.
Each participant had a place in a “story circle,” Rodriguez said. The circle was a safe place for people to share stories of trauma and healing.
Borrowing from Native tradition, each story shared belongs to the teller, Rodriguez said. Facilitators helped participants decide how to tell the story, what photos or supplementary media to include and how to edit and produce their stories.
Once a story is produced and put on a DVD, the storyteller has sole authority to decide who views it.
“They have the authority; they own it,” Rodriguez said. “They can put it out there at their will.”
Some storytellers share with close family members. Others post stories online. For some, telling the story is enough.
Storytelling can jumpstart the healing process, Bremner said.
“People who have been beaten and abused for many years are taught to keep silent,” she said. “This has been drilled into them inter-generationally. It’s extremely difficult for them to start talking about it.”
nDigiDreams has trained people ranging in age from 8 to 82 to produce digital stories. Native Women Rising hopes this movement makes its way across Indian Country.
“We want to prevent violence and promote change,” said Annie Belcourt, a psychologist and professor at the University of Montana who is working to bring digital storytelling to local tribes.
One of the keys to healing is holding ownership of one’s own story, she said. Belcourt, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, produced a story about her sister, who was killed in 2001.
“People need to feel in control of their own healing process,” she said. “You share the story with people closest to you, then you expand. You build that trust, safety, then you continue to have that safety expand so you can build hope and healing every day.”
Although stories are about abuse and trauma, they also are about healing, resilience, and love.
“They don’t just focus on statistics and disparities,” Manuelito said. “They focus on the innate strength and resilience we have as Native peoples. It’s rising against all odds. It’s rising, putting one foot in front of the other.”