The end of this month finds many of us wearing masks. Masks are defined as disguises to conceal all or one’s face or to hide identity. Many of us will don them for childrens’ sake or for our own safety.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The tag has myriad connotations for Indian Country. During this time, we remember Indian women who lost their lives to significant others or who live with the pain of domestic violence on a daily basis.
Designating October as Domestic Viiolence Awareness Month began in 1981 by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. It later evolved into an official month of awareness in 1987. That’s over 20 years of continuous recognition to a problem that is embarassingly prominent in our Indian world.
An online nursing resource site quotes alarming statistics that echo through Indian Country like a reasonating drum. An alarming statistic puts 75 percent of Indian women who were killed at the mercy of a significant other or other loved one.
The U.S. Department of Justice released statistics that paint a clearer picture on our calamity. From 2001-05, 11.1 American Indian women per every 1,000 experienced violence, more than twice the rate for black women.
It’s funny how some issues are still taboo in our society, like HIV/AIDS and domestic violence. We, of the bare-all sexuality of MTV, still avert our eyes in the clinic if we see a woman sporting a black eye in the waiting room. I have done it myself. We don’t want to pry but it seems we don’t want to see, either.
I link awareness with the story of one Kiowa woman from my hometown. She was always walking somewhere. I gave her a ride one time on a long ago blustery day. She climbed into the cab of the pickup and her eyes were warm and bright. I remember she warmed her hands in front of the side heater vents as we drove the three miles into town.
This lady chatted the entire way and I dropped her off and went on my way. I didn’t think much of it. And because of the stigma surrounding issues like these social ills, I will refrain from mentioning her name.
She was a mother and later, a grandmother.
Years later, it came as a sudden shock to me to hear she had been killed in her home. Her murder was never solved. Since she had lived her entire life around Anadarko, she knew many people and touched many lives. Still, she had met the kind of end that is depicted by domestic violence statistics.
These same numbers also put a life expectancy of 47 years on Indian women. These statistics scream that we perpetuate our own demise. But degradation of our women doesn’t originate with us.
Our culture is replete with various examples of matriarchal and matrilineal societies. That is to say, cultures that lionized women. These tribal societies determined lineage and clan membership based on the mother, the progenitors of our race.
My tribe, the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, are a matrilineal group wherein when a young man married a woman, he went to live in his mother-in-law’s grass house because he now belonged to that family. The reasoning being that women were integral in determining identity.
Other tribes, like the Cherokees, were also matrilineal. Indeed to this day, the Cherokees determine clan membership through the mother’s blood. What is one of the Five Civilized Tribes today, the Cherokees once recognized a political system where women were considered among some of their greatest warriors and decision makers prior to European contact.
Almost every tribe has a creation story that hinges upon a female entity, the Navajo, Cheyenne and Lakota, for example. While we revere the daring exploits of our men warriors, we also venerate our women because they carried within them the power to make life or destroy. But these are the days where fewer vision quests are sought. And many of our ceremonies are buried with our elders. It seems we have become numb to these sensibilities. Perhaps they are on a lower frequency but still hum through our perception.
In the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the 60,000-member tribe has a program geared to aiding and rescuing Indian women who are victims of domestic violence. This program, funded by tribal and federal dollars, offers temporary housing assistance to women with children who decide to flee an abusive partner.
The nature of domestic violence, which is based on control, affects all in its path, including the children who watch with wide eyes when one parent rages against another. My research on this social ill reveals that the silence is the most prevalent of perpetrators in this dark drama. Secrecy of the abuse tends to empower the battering spouse and binds the battered one.
As we near the end of October, I think of the women I know who have sported black eyes and covered bruises while in the clinic. This month encourages us to draw from our cultural pasts and remember who we are. Hating on women is not the Indian way.
S.E. Ruckman is a citizen of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes in Anadarko, Okla. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma’s School of Journalism and lives in Tulsa. Ruckman advocates newsroom diversity and HIV/AIDS awareness in Indian Country.