In order to end domestic violence in all its forms, we must understand why it exists in Native communities today, and assess our current challenges in addressing the issue. When we examine the reasons behind the presence of domestic violence in Native communities, we must first consider its historical origins.
Domestic violence in Native society came about over the course of centuries of change. Examining the history of oppression that laid the groundwork for the rise of violence against Native women shows us that efforts to end the domestic violence faced by women across Indian Country today are still in their infancy.
“You must be able to see where you have been, before you can possibly know where you want to go.” ~ Muscogee Creek
Native people occupying the land now known as the United States had complex societal structures that shaped the way they lived their lives. Some researchers estimate indigenous pre-contact populations at more than 45 million, while others approximate 20 million. The United States government estimates it at around half a million.1
In spite of the numbers disagreement, one fact remains commonly understood: Native people held women as sacred. In many societies, women were universally honored and respected for their life-giving powers. 2 Their ability to create life likened them to Mother Earth. Their communities respected and honored them. Acts of violence, such as rape were uncommon, and when they did occur, they evoked fear and horror because Native respect for women arose from the belief that women had power over life and death. 3 By many accounts, domestic violence was rare in indigenous societies prior to European contact and only became common after the onset of colonization.
COLONIZATION AND THE EARLY EROSION OF TRIBAL SOCIETIES
European contact began in large part in 1492, and led to an historic and tragic change in the lives of indigenous people: the beginning of the loss of culture and the change in the status of Native women.
Through the 1600s, tales of the “New World” spread through Europe and explorers came to lay claim to territories and riches for their homelands abroad. These colonizers held the common view that it was not only their divine right, but also their responsibility to take and use the land and its resources, without regard for the rights of the indigenous people living there at the time. 4 This threatened Native values and imposed the notion of ownership, a concept foreign to Native ways of life that eventually brought the ideas of men‘s ent it lement and women as property into some Native communities.
Prior to 1684, tribes were viewed as independent nations by foreign entities with the exception of Spain. Spain viewed the Native occupants of the “New World” as citizens and therefore subject to Spanish rule. This was the onset of the erosion of tribal sovereignty and eventually led to the loss of Native women’s sovereignty.
By the 1700s, European explorat ion of the “New World” had spread across the eastern seaboard, western seaboard, and as far north as Alaska, creating farreaching avenues for the spread of the European ideals that so negatively impacted the values and roles of Native women and men.
CONFRONTATION WITH TRIBAL WAYS OF LIVING
The tradit ional Cheyenne saying, “A people is not defeated unt il the hearts of its women are on the ground,” reflects the destructive practices of the colonizers.
The 1700s and 1800s were times of significant suffering by indigenous people. The values of traditional Native society were being undermined by practices aimed at gaining control of the land and resources, exposing and imposing a value system foreign to Native societies, a value system that designated women as substandard citizens.
Native people were viewed as barbarian, savage and not human; the Native way of life was being destroyed. This labeling was a tool used to enable the widespread destruction of Native people and is commonly used today as a tactic by batterers to control and dehumanize women. There are tales of small pox infected blankets, strychnine infected biscuits, slaughters of herds of bison, the massacres of hunting parties and slaughters of Native women and children.