A Place to Call Their Own: Domestic Violence Shelters on Native American Land


Not too long ago, protecting the women of the Pine Ridge Reservation from domestic violence wasn't such an easy task. With a domestic violence center, but no residential facilities, program staff were often forced to drive nearly a hundred miles to transport women seeking safe housing to the nearest shelter in Rapid City, SD.

And the problems didn't stop there. Take one morning, for example, when the staff shuttled four women to the faraway shelter.

"Three of those four women made their way back to the reservation before the staff did," said Karen Artichoker, director of Sacred Circle, the National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women. "They just didn't want to stay."

According to Artichoker, Native American women and children often felt uncomfortable when they were sent to off-reservation, non-Tribal shelters. They disliked the foreign atmosphere. And the staff and other clients seemed less than welcoming.

Today, though, things have changed. With the support of FYSB's Family Violence Prevention and Services Program, many Native American Tribes are finally able to run their own shelters on their own land, developing programs that, they say, serve their clients better.

Artichoker explains that many Native women feel that non-Native shelters have evolved into a more professional, medical model, which feels too strict. These shelters "have daily schedules, which bring us back to the days we were shipped to boarding schools," she says, referring to an era when Native children were removed from their families and sent far away to school.

Native women and their children at the Pine Ridge shelter who have escaped from family violence do not need regimented schedules but "a place to be safe and think and have tea," Artichoker said. "Women can relax here."

Native women also feel uncomfortable in non-Native shelters when they perceive racism from other clients or non- Native shelter staff. "Native women often feel that all non-Native people group them as 'Indians' and don't see the cultural differences between the Cherokees, the Choctaws, and the Chickasaws," says Pauline Musgrove, director of the Oklahoma Native American Domestic Violence Coalition. Native American women sometimes feel stereotyped, sensing that other clients and staff assume that they are alcoholic or uneducated, Musgrove said.

Native women also may not feel that their culture is understood by non- Native shelter staff. For example, Musgrove says that although many Native Americans live in Oklahoma, others in the State "don't understand the ways and traditions of Native American people." Native peoples have different parenting styles, different communication styles, different cuisine, and different family systems from mainstream European American culture, she says.

For women who "have never stepped out of their community," Artichoker says, "going to a shelter outside the reservation can be a real culture shock." Native women are much more likely to go to a shelter on their reservation where they recognize the food, the environment, and the people, she says.

One of the major cultural barriers that Native women find at non-Native shelters is a lack of knowledge or access to Native American spirituality and rituals. A domestic violence shelter run by Native Americans can offer connections to traditional spirituality.

One of the main goals of the Oklahoma Native American Domestic Violence Coalition is to "restore our cultural and traditional values to those who feel that need," Musgrove says.

"These women have come here to heal," she says. "For them, the healing process often involves reinstilling those cultural ways and traditions and spirituality to them."

When Native American women run their own shelters, it gives them a "sense of power over their own space.."

The shelter on the Pine Ridge Reservation connects women and their children to traditional spirituality by providing contact with a medicine man, for example. And in some cases, the shelter provides child care for women while they participate in longer Native American ceremonies, such as powwows, which can last up to a week.

With their emphasis on communal healing and traditional practices, Tribal shelters instill a sense of empowerment among its clients and Tribes. Artichoker compares the Native-run model to the traditional women's shelter model-that is, that domestic violence shelters work best if they are run by women, for women so that clients gain a sense of protection, safety, and empowerment. In the same way, she says, when Native American women have sovereignty over their shelters, it gives them a "sense of power over their own space and a feeling of being as competent as white people."

With Native shelters up and running, programs are now starting to build their wish lists for the future. Musgrove would like to see more shelters offer long-term help. "Some women need and want more than just 30 days," she says. "They've lived with a controlling domestic perpetrator for years and years, and now they need to learn to live lives of their own." She hopes to see shelters teaching them basic living and social skills, like how to write checks and go grocery shopping- "things they've never done by themselves before."

"We'd like to see domestic violence services help more than their immediate need in crisis," she said. "We'd like to see our services as a place where people and families can heal."

For more information on FYSB-supported domestic violence resources, go to:

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence 



Sacred Circle, National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women 



Indian Health Service Violence Against Native Women Clinical Tools 


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