In recent weeks, Indian Country Today Media Network has reported on apparent random acts of violence on Natives and on the unfolding mess of sexual abuse at Catholic schools in the Dakotas. With this issue, however, we begin a short series titled Circle of Violence, an attempt to draw attention to the harm we do to the ones closest to us, and to touch upon the reasons for it happening. Most of all, we want violence in the home to stop, and we believe the first step towards lowering the rates of family violence is to provide the means toward an open and frank discussion of it. It’s not enough to draw a connection to root causes. Now’s the time to take a stand.
Some people tend to equate family violence with violence against women. While that surely is an aspect of the issue, it is not the case all the time. Kids commit violence against elders, wives commit violence against their own children and their male partners. Indian country, so it is said, has a disproportionate amount of violent acts being committed in the home compared to other communities and some other countries.
The common denominator in this mess? It all stems from abuse at an early age. Eventually, every abused person—if they do not kill, get killed, or get sentenced to time behind bars, or spend all their lives in front of bars—searches for a way to feel good, to feel life is worth living and that there is a real thing called peace of mind and caring between people.
In the summer of 1976 I was visiting some remote communities in the Carolinas while on leave from the Marine Corps. I was staying in a place where families had had hard times for a long time. I was 19 years old and some of the kids in that part of the country were into shooting up MDA, the precursor to today’s methamphetamine and Ecstasy.
They would take their dose intravenously, usually with a friend who would administer the shot as a favor. The initial rush sometimes caused spasms, and the fear was that a user could tear his or her vein and bleed out in the throes of the ecstasy rushing through their blood. What I remember most was the pure and poignant look of peace that would brush across their faces and over their bodies as the pleasure took hold.
It was the look of peace and escape; it was the rush, the camaraderie with the techno spirit of a highly manufactured drug that sticks with me to this day. A peace, a happiness that I imagined they rarely experienced any other time in their otherwise very scary, insecure and violent lives.
America’s promise, “the pursuit of happiness” takes many forms. Don’t we all want to be happy? Don’t we all live for that pursuit?
I recall being afraid in my youth. Being afraid of getting whipped, or being yelled at for some dumb kid thing I did. But those little frights, and the threat and the imposition of discipline, were nothing to the fear some kids live with. Kids, who are locked in a closet or a cedar chest by their parents because they wet the bed, or because they are in the way of Mom getting high with her new deadbeat boyfriend. The guy who, with no job, is given the keys to the family vehicle and the keys to the house and the keys to that closet, or to the bedroom where a little girl lays hidden under her bed cause she knows the deadbeat boyfriend will be in her room, any minute now, once Mommy passes out.
A midwife once told me that kids know unconditional love; a parent or a relative would have to mess up in ways unimaginable for a child to hate them, to turn on them.
I remember also visiting relatives in upstate New York. I must have been 12 years old or so. My sister and I and the kids in the area were all playing outside in the nice summer night. We ran by the neighbor’s kitchen window and we saw a man we would later refer to as Uncle Chester, a relative of the family next door. He was at the kitchen table reading a book to one of the younger girls in the house; she had to be about 8 or 9 at the time. As he was reading her a book, sitting at the table with her standing next to him, we noticed that he had his hand up her little-girl skirt. She was alone in the room at that time with that man and we were outside, a windowpane away. And we ran away and made jokes about Uncle Chester the Molester. We never once considered the girl. We just ran off and continued playing.
But the little girl remained alone in that room with the man, with his hand up her little-girl skirt. I have no idea what that little girl does today, 42 years later, if she is okay, if she is productive. If she found a way to have a normal relationship with a man, or a woman for that matter. Does she trust humans anymore? Does she love life anymore? Or, is she the Mom who passes out minutes before the dead-beat boy-friend goes to her little girl’s room?
How many of us have been witness to crap like that? Pretty freaking depressing, wouldn’t you say? It feels uncomfortable reading about these things, doesn’t it? You can go to some church and make confession, if that will make you feel good. Or, you can go to some tipi and smudge yourself with cedar or sage, if that will make you feel good. But, none of that helps us forget. This sort of horror sticks.
So, the question looms: What are we going to do about this problem our communities have? You have a choice, we all have choices. The victimized, well, their choices are not so apparent, particularly to them. But we can resolve to not let abuse happen around us again.
Uncle Chester, for me, became the personification of the church, the boarding school and the BIA (the ultimate and most calculating abusers). But, those institutions are not alone. Natives had our own spice to add to the mix. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 40 percent of Native women and nearly 20 percent of Native men experienced violence at the hands of their partners.
Perhaps our problems would be more understandable if they were the direct results of poverty or poor education. But the hurt runs deeper than that. I remember watching a venerated elder who travelled the country relating his people’s prophesies. From what I witnessed, on his off time this “holy man” would accost and grope women. He would squeeze their butt, or sometimes brush up and across their breasts, pretending it was all an accident. He sure was accident-prone. But it was all overlooked by a boatload of people because he was a “wise” elder.
We would all joke about what a grab-ass he was with women. But, what he did was abusive and rude, and we turned a blind eye to it, even to this day, even after he has been dead for years. He got a pass. And we, you, me and the people next door, gave him that pass and we continue to give him a pass everyday we do not say what he did was wrong.
We need to address this issue that plagues us at all levels of society. There is a story I know about a fellow who came home from boarding school as a young man. He was a handsome lad—very polite and hard working. He learned many good things while away. He learned how to handle money, to build things with his hands. He knew math, reading and writing. He soon became a respected man in the community. But he learned something else while he had been gone. He learned that women were made for beating and they can be forced to do things. The sweetest, most hard-working and religious guy in the community, but he picked up this kink that was laid on him for the 12 years he was away. Every year, every day of those years it was drilled into him by example and by innuendo that rage was the way of the world. But the truth had been and is today, that his sort of behavior is not the way of the world; it is the way of a desperate society.
Today, there are big efforts being made to convince the federal government that we need money, training and more police officers to help us enforce laws, to enforce standards of good behavior in our nations to control the violence in our communities. Those are the actions of a desperate society.
How weird is this? We need outside help from the biggest abusers in our lives to help us clean up our own house? Brothers take care of their sisters and sisters take care of their brothers. And the kids take care of their parents when the time comes. Parents take care of children. And we all take care of our land, cause our land feeds us. Those are basic life rules. We do not need the feds to help us. If you have any kind of moral compass that points anywhere near in the right direction, you would know it is your responsibility to do something when you see wrong being done.
Some of the columns you will read in the next few weeks—particularly two by Harold Monteau—will elicit strong, visceral reactions. Yes, it is shocking stuff—but such is the severity of the situation, as anyone will conclude after reading the heart-felt reflections of Chuck Trimble, Karonienhawi Thomas and Crystal Willcuts, or the pleas for understanding from Cedric Sunray and Ruth Hopkins, and the Native wisdom of Dr. Art Martinez. (We have compiled a list of phone numbers in print and more information online, should circumstances necessitate immediate action.)
There is no pretty picture at the end of this series, I’m sorry to say. No happy ending. No rainbows, no rosemary or thyme. No sweet smells of cedar or sage. No chanting, no singing. Only silence—only your conscience. Oh yes, and the yelling and the sounds of fists on flesh and the crying you hear in the middle of the night coming from the house next door.
We are going to have to come to terms with our complicity in the issue of family violence on our territories and within our families. The sooner we do it, the sooner we can fix it—by ourselves, within our own social and legal standards.
Do what you can. When you hear or see it happening, report it. Call a cop. Be a witness. Organize an intervention with professional help. Doing nothing is wrong. Doing something—anything—is a step in the right direction.