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 


How FYSB's Family Violence Prevention and Services Program Works for Tribes

The Family Violence Prevention and Services Program funds State agencies, Territories, and Indian Tribes to provide shelter to victims of family violence and their dependents and for related services, such as emergency transportation and child care. Grantees use FYSB resources to expand current service programs and to open new centers in rural and underserved areas, on Indian reservations, and in Alaska Native villages. Technical assistance on the prevention of family violence toward Native women is provided through Sacred Circle, a resource center that is part of the Domestic Violence Resource Center Network.


Ten percent of Family Violence Program appropriations are set aside for grants to Indian Tribes, Tribal organizations, and nonprofit organizations approved by the Indian Tribe. Grantees can either operate family violence shelters on reservations or develop projects designed to prevent family violence and provide immediate shelter and related assistance for victims of family violence and their dependents.

Grants are awarded to all federally recognized Tribes that apply and meet the criteria. Grant amounts are determined on a formula basis. Tribes and tribal entities that meet application requirements are granted minimum base amounts determined by population.

After the distribution of base amounts, the remaining funds are allocated in proportional amounts based on the ratio of the Tribe's population to the total population of all Tribes that have applied.

Tribes are also encouraged to apply as consortia.

Serving Native Women and Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

Here are some ways you can better serve Native women and children exposed to domestic violence:

Research the unique history of Native Americans in the United States for an understanding of the underlying issues around domestic violence in Tribal communities. For an excellent introduction, download Introductory Manual to Domestic Violence in Indian Country (2003) by Mending the Sacred Hoop Technical Assistance Project.

Learn about the cross-jurisdictional issues between Tribal and non-Tribal law enforcement and courts, which can leave some Native battered women vulnerable.

Bring in Tribal representatives to train your staff on how to be more culturally sensitive. Given the often close-knit nature of Tribal communities, keep in mind that confidentiality is of utmost importance.

Hire a culturally representative and bilingual staff and allow them to provide guidance on facilities, outreach, policies, and procedures.

Make traditional healers available for Tribal women, who may feel uncomfortable with Western services and counseling.

Create a supportive community of Native women. By fleeing their homes, Native women often lose a highly developed support system of extended family, which can leave them feeling adrift.