An epidemic of violence: Nebraska Native women struggle to break the cycle

Native American women living on reservations face rates of domestic and sexual violence much higher than the national average. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
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April 2, 2013 - 6:30am

One in three Native American women will face domestic or sexual violence in their lifetimes; many will suffer both. The recent expansion of the federal Violence Against Women Act contains specific provisions aimed at protecting Native women, but the roots of the violence run deep, and a solution for Nebraska’s tribes isn’t so simple.


Ask about domestic violence on a reservation, and it seems every Native American woman has a story to tell. Her mother, her best friend, her daughter.

Often, the story is her own.

An Epidemic of Violence, part 2

"Nebraska's Tribes Lack Legal Power To Protect Their People"

The recent expansion of the federal Violence Against Women Act has been hailed as a milestone for Native women in the fight against domestic abuse and sexual assault. But it’s unlikely the law will have nearly as much impact on Nebraska’s tribes as it will in other states.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Shari Patton is director for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska domestic violence intervention program.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

One of the bedrooms at the domestic violence shelter in Winnebago, Neb. on the Winnebago Reservation.

“One day I just came home, and I had no idea he had broken into my house,” said Winnebago tribe member Shari Patton.  She’s describing a former partner of five years, who she never knew was a meth addict. When she found out, she left him.

Nine months later, on Valentine’s Day, he came after her.

“He comes at me, charging at me, and he just starts hitting me, saying he’s going to kill me, threatens my life. It seemed like the beating went on for hours and hours and hours, and it was only minutes,” she said. Patton is the director for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska domestic violence intervention program. “When he did the beating, I was cut with a box cutter, and he choked me. He did literally want to kill me.”

Violence on the reservation

Her story is far too common. It’s difficult to verify statistics for domestic abuse and  sexual assault against Native women, experts said, citing concerns about methodology and reporting processes, but the estimates are staggering.

According to data from the National Congress of American Indians and the Department of Justice, one in three Native American and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes. That’s more than twice as high as the general population. Almost 40 percent of Native women will face domestic violence, compared with 17 percent of women generally.

On some reservations, the murder rate for Native women is ten times the national average.

“We’re just about epidemic,” said Omaha tribe member Gloria Grant Gone, director of the Omaha Nation Abuse Intervention Project.  She’s a founding member of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, a coalition of Native women who work to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

It was a challenge to find women willing to speak on the record about issues of domestic and sexual violence on reservations; it’s the kind of thing you just don’t talk about, Gone said, especially with outsiders.

But nothing will change if people stay quiet, she said.

“That’s a teaching I received from my grandmother,” Gone said. “She always told me to speak my mind, be truthful. Don’t be a follower, be independent. You’re an Omaha woman.”

Gone speaks out in memory of her best friend … one of the silent ones. She was murdered by her husband in 1991, two weeks after seeking a protection order from the tribal court.

“Her initial stab wounds were superficial, but he went back a second time, seeing that she was still alive, and he cut her throat,” Gone recounted. “She went through 11 stab wounds, and then she had her throat cut. I never even knew it was that bad, and I was her best friend. I didn’t realize until a month before, (when) I saw him beating her and I chased him with a hammer.”

A former tribal law enforcement officer and emergency technician, Gone called her experiences with domestic violence and sexual assault “bitter knowledge.” She watched her mother be abused by her father and stepfather until she drank herself to death at age 28.

A clash of cultures

It’s a far cry from the past; Gone and Patton said women were revered as sacred in traditional Native culture, but centuries of displacement and forced assimilation have created a “power play” between tribes’ ancestral culture and modern social ills. That historical trauma has also played out in fragmented family structure, as the tribes’ children were forcibly removed from the reservations and transported to boarding schools. Gone was the third generation in her family sent away.

The next generation is then raised by parents who have suffered – parents who might turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with past trauma. Government data shows 18 percent of Native adults were classified as needing treatment for a substance abuse problem, twice as high as the national average. Excessive alcohol consumption is the leading preventable cause of death.

Parents pass on those destructive behaviors to their kids, and the cycle continues.

“So they grow up thinking that this is OK. ‘Mom and Dad did this,’” Gone said. “They’re going to go one of two ways: they’re either going to be the abuser, or they are setting themselves up to be the victim.”

Silent suffering

Victims of abuse – both women and men - are often reluctant to come forward, for a variety of reasons. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, fewer than half of all rapes in the U.S. are reported to the police, and only 3 percent of all rapists ever spend time in jail.

And those are national statistics. On a reservation, where everyone knows everyone and most people are related somehow, retaliation for speaking up can be brutal.

Patton knows this all too well. The father of her five children, a different man than her first abuser, landed in jail for his violence towards her. But his family didn’t see her as a victim – and in the rural area where she lived, she was constantly running into them. The grocery story, the gas station …

They didn’t hide what they thought of the situation.

“It was all my fault that he was locked up, and, oh, he’ll never see his other kids again because of me,” Patton said. “Basically, his behavior was all my fault. They never did once see that it was wrong of him, what he did.”

Patton was able to move to a new location on the reservation, but that kind of retaliation forces some to leave all together. Many of the women Gone and Patton help never press charges, or drop the charges before their abusers can be convicted.

“It’s hidden, quite a bit. Nobody wants to talk about it, but then there’s a lot of participants that know they’ve done wrong, but they’ve never been convicted,” Gone said. “And it’ll go on for years. It’s going on here.

“It probably happened last night,” she said. “That’s how bad it is.”


Editor’s note: This story is part of a special report on the Violence Against Women Act and Nebraska’s tribes. We’ll focus on the future, including the impact of the Violence Against Women Act, next Tuesday during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on NET Radio. Tune into NET Television tonight for the Frontline documentary “Kind Hearted Woman,” which chronicles a Native woman’s struggle to heal after years of abuse in North Dakota. That airs on NET-1 and NET-HD at 8 p.m. CT.

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