Indigenous advocates call for more education on domestic and sexual violence

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From right, Kelia Yanito, Sharnen Velarde, Shannon Hoshnic and Tamani Ortiz participate in a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Peggy Bird, a co-founder of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, on May 23, 2024. Credit: Bella Davis/New Mexico In Depth

Tribal leaders need to push for more education within their communities about domestic violence and sexual assault, from consistent training for police to classes on healthy relationships for young people. 

That’s one of the main recommendations to emerge from this week’s annual summit organized by the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women

“Always remember the solutions to violence exist within our tribal communities,” Tiffany Jiron (Isleta Pueblo), the coalition’s executive director, said to a room of about 70 people to kick off the event on Wednesday and Thursday at Isleta Resort and Casino.

The summit brought together tribal leaders and advocates to discuss challenges but also “celebrate our collective progress” in addressing “one of the most pressing issues facing our communities,” Jiron said.

About 84% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a report published by the Department of Justice in 2016. (While about a third reported experiencing violence at the hands of another Indigenous person, 97% had been harmed by a non-Indigenous person.)

Shannon Hoshnic (Navajo) works at Sexual Assault Services of Northwest New Mexico, which provides exams used to collect evidence and therapy, among other services.

Some patrol officers she encounters don’t know what resources are available to offer victims or how to interview them, Hoshnic said during a panel discussion Thursday.

“What we’re doing is we’re revictimizing the victim and their family and I think that’s one thing we really, really try not to do,” Hoshnic said. “And that’s not putting blame on anybody or finger pointing. It’s just, hey, we need your help. Where do you need more training? And that’s what we’re there for.” 

Making a person repeat their story more than a few times can be damaging, said Sharnen Velarde (Jicarilla Apache), who works for her tribe’s domestic violence program. 

“That is a big one because over time it retraumatizes them,” Velarde said. “We try to have the victims repeating it maybe two or three times at the most.”

Training to prevent that kind of harm needs to happen regularly, Hoshnic said, instead of “one-time, one per year and you’re checking off the box.” It also needs to come from the top down, she said, starting with tribal leaders. 

Tamani Ortiz (San Felipe Pueblo), a victim advocate for Santo Domingo Pueblo, also emphasized education. 

“The biggest letdown is the victim always being asked, ‘Why do you keep going back? Why don’t you leave?’ Our decision makers and our lawmakers don’t realize when you are in a domestic relationship where there’s a lot of power and control, and you’ve been in that situation for so many years, it takes a whole lot of effort to change that mindset,” she said, adding that Native men experience domestic violence, too.

Ortiz is a domestic violence survivor herself. She grew up in a loving home with two parents she never saw fight, Ortiz said, so she had to “work really hard to figure out why I ended up in a situation I wasn’t brought up in.” 

Hoshnic sees education not only as a way of providing more helpful responses to victims but also as a preventative measure. 

She talks with students, ranging from kindergarten to college, about boundaries, consent and where to get help. 

“When I go into schools, you get these disclosures and you hear these stories and they say, ‘You’re the first person I can talk to about this.’ You hear from teenagers and adults, ‘I was victimized as a child and didn’t have anybody to go to. We didn’t know your resources were available.’” 

A response plan created by a now-disbanded state task force on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people, which advocates say domestic and sexual violence contribute to, includes many of the same solutions discussed at the summit. 

The group identified expanding youth programs and community education “to raise awareness and prevention of sexual violence and domestic violence” as a primary priority.

Local and national domestic and sexual violence resources

Sexual Assault Services of Northwest New Mexico: In addition to offering medical exams and therapy, this organization also runs a 24-hour hotline (505-326-4700) that provides referrals and emotional support.

StrongHearts Native Helpline: 24-hour, confidential domestic and sexual violence helpline (1-844-7NATIVE) for Native Americans that offers culturally-appropriate support and advocacy.

RAINN: Nonprofit that runs a confidential, 24-hour sexual assault hotline (800-656-4673) and online chat and provides educational resources like how to report sexual assault.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 24-hour hotline (call 1-800-799-SAFE or text “START” to 88788). The organization also maintains a directory of local providers and runs love is respect, which offers information and support to people between the ages of 13 and 26 who have questions or concerns about their romantic relationships.

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