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Domestic Violence Within The Hopi Tribe

BY ANNE HOFFMAN -- A new study by the world health organization finds that 1 in 3 women is assaulted in her lifetime. For Native American women, that number is almost twice as high, at 61 percent. The Hopi nation in northern Arizona is in the middle of what advocates call a domestic violence epidemic. But after years of secrecy, victims are starting to come forward

One domestic violence survivor – a mother whose name I won’t use to protect her safety – suffered for years before she reported her husband to local authorities. He slapped her once before they were married. Then he started calling her names. As is drinking got worse, so did his outbursts.

“When I was pregnant, he poked me real hard in my stomach,” she says. “I had given, I guess, myself to him. So it took me awhile to stop.”

She finally reported him to police after he threw a DVD player at her. She hid and made sure her kids were safe. They waited half an hour before reservation police arrived.

“By then he had already kind of calmed down,” she says.

Her experience is  typical of a domestic violence case on the reservation. It can take tribal police up to an hour to respond to a call because they’re low on staff and homes are far apart – even when they arrive on the scene, there’s no shelter to take victims to on the tribe’s land. The closest one is an hour and a half away. And it’s usually full.

It’s easy to understand why victims weren’t reporting. The risk of revenge from an abuser is high, and while the reservation is spread out geographically, it’s extremely close-knit socially. Information travels quickly. And even when an abuser is in jail, his family can make life difficult for the victim.

“I got, I guess in a way kind of harassed by the family. I was already put in that state. They treated me real bad, and then when the kids came around they didn’t even acknowledge them.”

Attorney Dorma Sahneyah is Hopi and works with tribes across the western United States as a domestic violence specialist. She says in recent years things have started to change

“Women are getting together and they’re talking about it. They’re trying to strategize and figure out what some of the solutions could be,” says Sahneyah.

Hopi victims started coming forward for a number of reasons, including stronger sentencing and a series of aggressive chief prosecutors. But it was a homegrown, Hopi-run non-profit called the Hopi Tewa women’s coalition to end abuse that brought domestic violence into the spotlight. The group started holding events about sexual assault and partner abuse in 2011. Roxanne Joseyesva works for the organization, and she says  two days after their first conference, the calls came pouring in.

People were calling and saying, “I needed help” or “I was abused.” “I was sexually assaulted,” you know, things like that. And so we knew then that there was people out there who were just too afraid to come out.

This year, 40 people have come forward and filed domestic violence cases on the reservation. Jill Engel is the chief prosecutor for the Hopi tribe.

“I’ve seen many photos of the injuries that they’ve sustained at the hands of people they love. Including, being slashed with machetes, stabbed,” says Engel.

The tribe also changed its legal code last year to give perpetrators more jail time. Instead of spending one year in jail on an assault charge, convicted abusers could face up to two years per count. That’s still not nearly as many years as someone would face in a non tribal court, where sentences range from two to twenty years…depending on the severity of the crime. But Engel says it’s made a difference.

“I’ve been here two years. And it’s improved significantly, the number of women, I think that are reporting and actually following through with prosecution.”

The Hopi mother I interviewed was able to leave her husband after police came to her house during an especially bad incident. But ultimately, she found the strength to get out when she saw him hurt their little girl. Traditionally, the Hopi are matrilineal -- so girls carry on the family name.

“She’s, like, I guess important, because she’s gonna be carrying on our clan,” she says.  “So I have to take care of her more than the boy, it sounds bad, I know (laughing).”

Her daughter used to be scared of men and get angry when anyone got near her mom. But since her parents’ divorce and her dad’s conviction, her mom says she’s been a lot happier.

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