The Importance of Culture in Healing from Domestic Violence in Indigenous Communities: The Stories Are the Data

Indigenous serving domestic violence advocates bring awareness to the importance of an intergenerational family approach to healing. Service providers highlight the importance of building authentic tribal partnerships and using culturally grounded approaches to supporting indigenous children and families’ healing from domestic violence. 

Indigenous populations in the U.S. experience violence at alarming rates. Futures Without Violence, part of the FVPSA-funded Domestic Violence Resource Network, recently provided an in-depth look at two programs serving Native and minority populations during a 90-minute webinar, Lessons Learned: Supporting Indigenous Children and Families Experiencing Domestic Violence, to discuss progress made during the last four years of FVPSA’s Specialized Services to Abused Parents and Their Children (SSAPC) grant program. Two grantees, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence and the Domestic Violence Action Center, joined moderator Jess Fournier for this February 4, 2020, webinar.

Under the SSAPC grant program, FVPSA funds 12 demonstration sites to work toward improving systematic responses to families exposed to domestic violence (DV); develop or enhance residential and nonresidential services for children and youth; and bolster evidence-informed and practice-informed services, strategies, advocacy, and interventions for young DV survivors. The primary objective was to help alleviate trauma experienced by children and youth exposed to family violence and to support the relationships between the abused parents and their children. Futures Without Violence provides intensive training and programmatic and evaluation technical assistance to these grantees through the Promising Futures Capacity Building Center, both individually and collectively as a cohort.

Illustration of Native American woman and daughter. They have handprints over their mouths.
"Matriarchy" by Elsie Cree, Nez Perce Tribe,
Lapwai, ID

Tai Simpson and Melanie Fillmore of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence kicked off the webinar with a lesson in the confluence of ceremony, healing, and sovereignty in indigenous DV work. Their coalition works with three Indian tribes (Coeur D'Alene, Nez Perce, and Shoshone-Bannock) and the Boise Urban Indian community. The Coalition also supports the LatinX and refugee and resettled communities throughout Idaho. According to Ms. Simpson, “Thriving Families’ work over the last four years has also reflected the change of priorities and culture at the Coalition.” Ms. Fillmore discussed the varied and sacred practices of sweat that allow participants who have experienced DV to be vulnerable in community with others as they heal. They presented the themes that emerged during the listening sessions with indigenous communities:

  • Learn sovereignty. Indigenous communities are sovereign nations that are self-governing and self-determining with distinct land, language, culture, and treaties. Discover how they story the creation of their Tribes.
  • Identify community matriarchs who are often lifelong DV advocates, but more importantly, are the women others turn to for comfort, safety, and education. The matriarchs are accountable to their people.
  • Understand how indigenous people connect with one another (i.e., storying connection) is more relevant than other credentials (e.g., college degrees, certifications). Nonindigenous providers should share their own stories of how they began doing this work and learn the stories of the communities of color or marginalized people they are serving. Always keep in mind that “the stories are the data.”
  • Provide access to ceremony, which can be simple gestures such as offering quiet space for smudging, talking circles, music, food, representative posters, etc.
  • Develop relationships with Elder mentors by asking for their support and knowledge when building tribal DV programs.

Next, Ella Mojica of the Domestic Violence Action Center (DVAC) described how the Pulama I Ka ‘Ohana (PIKO), which means cherish the family, program applies Native Hawaiian culture to help DV survivors and their children find safety, peace, and healing. Hawaii is very multicultural. For instance, approximately 30% of DVAC clientele is foreign born. Therefore, DVAC programs have become culturally specific and adaptive by hiring bilingual and bicultural team members to better understand different perspectives on domestic violence and help overcome language and immigration barriers.

Group of Native Hawaiian women
Native Hawaiian survivors celebrating completion of support group program

Despite being only 10% of the state’s total population, the Native Hawaiian population experiences the highest rates of domestic violence and child abuse compared with any other ethnic group. As a result, DVAC provides support and services to Native Hawaiians more than other ethnic groups. To confront this issue, DVAC looked at cultural issues during the assessment and planning phase of the SSAPC project by conducting a listening tour with Native Hawaiian Elders and conducting community peace polls. HUI, or groups, were formed to discuss how to respond to the high rates of child abuse and domestic violence. The groups included community leaders, cultural navigators, content experts, and DV survivors. This input helped develop their project’s framework and curriculum.

The resulting curriculum helps DV survivors foster healthy relationships with themselves and their children. Many survivors express to DVAC providers that they have lost a sense of who they are at their core as a result of their traumatic experiences. Ms. Mojica explained that the PIKO program uses cultural practices and traditions by emphasizing natural elements to help DV survivors and their children to connect to their ancestors and the land. These traditions include dancing hula, making leis and baskets, chanting, and singing. One participant stated, “The program is different from other programs because of the Hawaiian culture and focuses on healing. I liked the symbolism of releasing old shells in the ocean with my children to let go of past experiences that hurt my family. It felt cleansing to be in the ocean.” For example, mothers and children pound kalo plants to make food. Working with these plants represents sustenance and rebirth.  A program participant stated, “Using kalo to learn about where I come from, about life, about me, was my favorite part so far. It opened my eyes to learn to love myself so I can be better for my kids. Before I thought kalo was just food.” DVAC uses the Lokahi Wheel to integrate traditional Hawaiian values into their curriculum and services. In the Native Hawaiian culture, Lokahi means harmony, balance, and unity as it relates to emotions, body, mind, spirt, responsibility, and family.

A mother and daughter seated at a table preparing a traditional Hawaiian food.
Parent and child pounding kalo after 
learning its significance in Hawaiian culture

Ms. Mojica discussed the importance of using a multigenerational approach to services to help survivors and their families recognize and understand how generational patterns of abuse can cause trauma throughout the lifespan. Like the Idaho tribes’ storying connection, talk story is the act of sharing history, ideas, opinions, and daily events with one another. This storytelling creates open dialog among survivors, their children, and their Ohana, which refers to extended family and community. In addition, DVAC coordinates culturally and linguistically based support to help build community.

Listen to the webinar.

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