Domestic Violence among Native Americans Research Paper

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The United States is a culturally diverse society, and the problem of domestic violence needs to be examined across all of its different cultures. When discussing domestic violence in relation to Native Americans, it is important to remember that only generalities can be used, as there is great diversity within this broad ethnic label. There are more than 500 federally recognized American Indian/Alaska Native tribal nations. Each of these tribal nations possesses distinct cultures and traditions. According to Census 2000, there are 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States.

While some aspects of domestic violence may supersede culture, cultural considerations need to be made when developing community response mechanisms and designing treatment or other interventions and services. Acknowledging that domestic violence exists in Native American cultures may be viewed as criticizing the culture itself. Native Americans may fear that dominant society will use any information about domestic violence within their communities to reinforce negative stereotypes. Native American people still face many problems in addition to domestic violence, including racism, prejudice, and discrimination. Yet, recognizing differences in history and experiences of racism and oppression, as well as differences in cultural and religious beliefs, is important in designing responses to address domestic violence.

Native Americans are victims of crime at more than double the national rate. For some crimes the rates are even higher; for instance, reported rape rates in 2004 were 2 per 1,000 for all races but 35 per 1,000 for Native Americans. According to the Department of Justice, Native American females are victimized by a partner at rates much greater than other ethnic groups. Their rate of 23 victims per 1,000 is more than double the rate of the next highest group, African American females. Native American victims of intimate and family violence are also more likely than victims of other races to be injured and need hospital care.

It is also important to note that at least 70 percent of the violence experienced by Native Americans is committed by persons of a different race, which is quite different than the typical intraracial violence experienced by other victims. Among Native American victims of violence, 75 percent of the intimate victimizations and 25 percent of the family victimizations involved an offender of a different race. This means that Native Americans are victimized outside of their own race more than other ethnic groups.

Traditional Beliefs

While it is impossible to make generalized statements about all aspects of Native American culture, most tribes share the same belief that every living thing has its own special place in the universe. Women were valued and honored in traditional native cultures. Almost all native creation stories have women being made first. Many of the spiritual teachings speak to the gifts of creation and wisdom brought by sacred women. Even the earth itself is thought of as female, and native people were taught to honor their connection to it. The teachings relate an important balance and interconnectedness between males and females who respect each other.

Historically, many Native American communities were matrilineal, both following the woman’s bloodline and living in the woman’s community. Either the husband or the wife could initiate a divorce if he or she wished. Traditionally, a high value was placed on the role of women, their linkage to the earth, and the giving of life; therefore, to abuse a woman would be like abusing Mother Earth and showing irreverence toward life, thus breaking a sacred bond. Domestic violence against women violates the Native American traditional belief that everything is sacred and bonded together, especially with regard to women, who are the bearers of life. As it is believed that everything has its own special place in the universe and should be respected, not abused, abuse of a family member is not ‘‘traditional,’’ because it breaks the sacred bonds of respect.

To many Native Americans, family is part of a broad kinship and tribal network; its strength is based on interdependence and group affiliation, so a high value is placed on cooperation and harmony. Along with this interdependence, individuals are each expected to be responsible for their own behavior. Many Native Americans view themselves in terms of their role within the bigger group rather than as individuals. There may also be an emphasis on the importance of extended family and cultural spirituality.

In many tribes when violence has been committed against a woman, the community feels the need to respond to restore the harmony that is essential for survival of the tribe. A man who was violent within his family showed that he did not possess the self-discipline, respect, or spiritual understanding to lead his people; therefore, he would not be given any leadership opportunities within the tribe. The abuser could also be ostracized, be retaliated against by the male relatives of the victim, or even banished.

Traditionally, parenting methods and marital relationships were nonviolent and attempted to nurture the spirit of each individual and instill respect. With colonization by Europeans came the introduction of alcohol and corporal punishment teachings from Christianity. In the past two centuries, many youths also experienced violence in boarding schools. As reservations were established, the traditional male role of ‘‘protector’’ within many tribes was taken away by the American government. Native people were also exposed to the negative beliefs and behaviors toward women evident in the now-dominant culture. While Native American women often traditionally held key tribal positions and were honored for their role as life-givers and nurturers, this role was usurped by the European notion that women were little more than property. Unlike some native cultures that were matrilineal or others in which women were free to choose or reject their partners and in which men lived with their wives’ people, the European practice was to have women take the last name of their husbands and wear a ring to show that they were no longer sexually available, since they belonged to the specific man who could treat his property however he chose.

Native people were taught, often through violent means and the passing of laws by the American government, to despise and fear their own cultural and spiritual ways. Language and traditions were often given up as the Native people experienced oppression bordering on genocide. This external oppression gradually created an internal oppression keeping native people divided and critical of each other, which in turn fostered further violence among native tribes, resulting in feelings of isolation, fear, and despair.

In the absence of traditional tribal ways of dealing with marital conflict, domestic violence has become a large problem for Native American women today. Native American victims living on reservations face many challenges when dealing with domestic violence, similar to those faced by other rural victims— such as limited access to telephones, transportation, and victim services. Additionally, Native Americans may face the complex issue of navigating tribal and state jurisdictions, where the jurisdiction depends on where the crime was committed, who committed the crime, and exactly what crime was committed. These jurisdictional issues may limit who will respond to calls for help from an abuse victim, and since many tribes do not have jails, there may be less incentive to arrest or enforce the laws. It is important to note that a protection order issued by one state or tribe is valid and enforceable in any other state or tribal jurisdiction.

Approaches to Dealing with Domestic Violence among Native Americans

There are two dominant approaches to dealing with domestic violence. One approach is often referred to as the ‘‘legal model,’’ which is supported by dominant society and many feminists. The other approach is referred to as the ‘‘mediation model,’’ which is supported by the informal justice movement and many Native American communities. The dominant legal model has focused on arrest and prosecution policies, treatment programs for batterers, and restraining orders for the protection of victims. The mediation model emphasizes the importance of the involvement of the community and urges reconciliation and addressing the problem.

Many minority groups have a deep-seated distrust of the dominant culture and thus may believe that the police, social services, courts, and others will not actually act in a protective fashion, and so they will not seek help from these resources. The stress of racism, discrimination in employment opportunities, and other economic inequalities may create additional barriers to leaving or changing a violent situation. Even simply the lack of bilingual capacity may force Native Americans to not utilize available services. Additionally, many services ignore or negatively label cultural beliefs which may be helpful in addressing interpersonal violence. Native American victims as well as batterers may also view therapy or treatment programs as another attempt by the dominant culture to be oppressive and controlling. This view may contribute to underutilization of treatment and premature dropout of those who do use such services.

In contemporary Native American communities, breaking a law or committing an act which is classified as breaking a norm or as being antisocial can cause tribal society to react with a sanction against the offender. Some alternative approaches to the intervention of the dominant society’s criminal justice system include tribal justice systems and restorative justice, which turns to community support rather than the formal legal process to provide group conferencing and sentencing circles. Because many of today’s adult Native Americans were placed in foster care or sent to boarding schools when they were young, many have developed a deep-seated fear or resentment of state and federal government agencies; because of this, they may respond better to these alternative sanctions decided on by their tribal leaders. What is deemed an appropriate sanction for a particular act varies from tribe to tribe. Depending on the tribe involved and the traditional practices of that tribe, forms of redress for the victim of domestic violence often include some type of offering for the victim, for the benefit of the tribe, and/or to appease the spiritual beings associated with the tribe.

It is recognized that domestic violence affects more than the immediate couple. It also affects the couple’s children, as well as the larger family, which traditionally includes many relatives and a greater number of people than the ‘‘nuclear family’’ of the dominant culture. Therefore, in tribal communities, there is typically a large supportive group of people able to help both the victim and the offender. When reentering the community, the offender has to ask forgiveness from the victims and their community. While the tribe has a say in what will happen to the offender, in many tribes the victim also has a say, but in some tribes the victim has no say in the matter.

Treatment for victims on the reservation is difficult because many reservations do not have sufficient funds to support treatment centers and programs. Therefore, victims usually have to go to an outside source for help. To date there has been little systematic research conducted and few clinical interventions developed specific to Native American domestic violence victims. To assist Native American victims of domestic violence, researchers need to examine why Native American women are more heavily victimized than many other ethnic groups. It will also be important to understand why domestic violence is committed predominantly by intimate partners of other races.

There are new programs which are designed to encourage an appreciation for indigenous cultures and foster pride in one’s connection with one’s culture and perhaps guide movement toward a more traditional lifestyle. Services and resources within such programs usually are culturally sensitive to Native American customs and traditions. Developing such programs can be difficult because in order to show respect for and protect the traditional Native American culture, many tribes do not print or share information about many of their traditional ways. Yet, ending violence against Native American women is integral to reclaiming traditional ways. There is also an effort to develop community-based responses and examine tribal legal codes so crimes can be appropriately addressed. There has also been a push to develop methods to generate and record demographically specific statistics for the Native American population.

There is little research specifically on domestic violence in Native American communities. While most Native Americans do not condone domestic violence, they do view it differently. Because of the extended kinship networks and the general view that there is relative equality and interdependence between men and women, violence in the family is not seen as a gender or feminist issue where the man alone is to blame. Since both men and women bear responsibility for domestic violence, shelters and court systems that seem to blame and punish the man while not helping to resolve the underlying problem and ignoring the woman’s behavior are avoided.

Improving links to local service providers, if there are any within the community, and accessing tribal or other resources are also important steps in offering culturally relevant victim services. Even in areas with high concentrations of Native Americans, there are few domestic violence shelters and few substance-abuse facilities despite the large number of Native American domestic violence survivors who are chemically dependent. Survivors would benefit from better availability of coordinated multidisciplinary approaches providing a broad range of services which would target abuse and addiction needs as well as acknowledge and support the woman’s role as the traditional center of her family. Due to the complexity of domestic violence, a number of community resources may need to be involved, including tribal, health, social services, law enforcement, legal assistance, mental health services, and addiction treatment centers.

To address the issue of domestic violence among Native Americans, several improvements could be made. Beyond offering bilingual services for victims and batterers, workers in the system should reach out to those who could use their services, make them aware of the availability of services, and explain how the services work and what the procedures are to obtain them. Social service providers and other professionals who work with domestic violence victims should take the first step toward bridging any barriers, racial or otherwise. Partnerships with Native American communities should be made so close that relations can be maintained and needed adjustments to prevention, victim, batterer, and other programs will be recognized as early as possible. Efforts should also be made to address poverty and racism, which contribute to higher rates of domestic violence.


An examination of the history of a minority group may explain the presence of violence but it does not excuse it. Rather than simply incarcerating Native Americans who commit domestic violence and sending the abused to shelters, communities may benefit from integrating discussions of this problem and providing services for victims and batterers into community settings. Batterer programs may be viewed as better options than incarceration of the batterer as long as the victim’s safety is ensured. Culturally sensitive service providers need to build trust with Native American communities, understand how social and cultural discrimination against the minority group has impacted that group over time, and how strengths within the Native American culture can be used to facilitate change and encourage a reduction in domestic violence.

See also:


  1. Artichoker, Karen, and Marlin Mousseau. ‘‘Violence Against Native Women Is Not Traditional,’’ Kyle, SD: Cangleska, 1993.
  2. Malley-Morrison, Kathleen, and Denise A. Hines. Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective: Defining, Understanding, and Combating Abuse. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004.

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