Preserving Families

Restoring Native American Families

A young Mark Anthony Rolo at rightA young Mark Anthony Rolo at right

Each tribe's historic relocation or genocide experience also damaged traditional family structures and family mores. Some Native American tribes were patriarchal, but most were matriarchal tracing lineage through the mother. In general, women held honored places in the society. For instance, among the Cherokees, women owned the homes and garden plots, which were passed from mother to daughter. It was also the Cherokee Women's Council who determined which men were worthy of performing sacred duties or holding public office. Many other tribes had similar matriarchal systems.

According to many tribal elders and oral traditions, "wife-beating" was a practice learned from non-Indian society. Or at least, the stresses introduced by the Europeans may have contributed to domestic abuse.

More recently, the mass migration of Native Americans from rural reservations to the cities in the last half of the 20th century also exacerbated family problems. Traditionally, most Native Americans lived in extended families. Siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and shirttail relations all were nearby, sometimes all in the same house. As families moved to the cities, the extended family support system broke down.

In A Seat at the Drum, Annette Phoenix admits living in the city is "pretty tough, especially when I and their dad separated. Yeah, it was really tough because no extra income was coming in, and I was just barely above that poverty level where I couldn't get services."

Annette is struggling to raise her four boys well by keeping them involved in the Southern California Indian Center and returning to her home reservation as often as she can — the Tohono O'Odham in southern Arizona.

Research also suggests factors that are NOT causes of family stress. Many of us instinctively point to alcohol as a source of violence. But, substance abuse is now seen as a symptom of deeper problems, rather than the cause of family stress and domestic violence. For instance, several studies have shown that batterers do not stop their violence when they stop drinking. Another study showed that 75 percent of physical abuse incidents occurred in the absence of alcohol.

In response to these challenges, tribes and the federal government have begun to implement programs to help Native families.

For example, in 1978 Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) that was intended to finally stop the practice of removing and adopting out Indian children from Native homes. From the late 1800s, the federal government essentially told parents that the feds knew better than Native parents what was good for their children. Thousands of Indian children were shipped away from the reservations to Indian Boarding Schools.

When these schools were phased out after World War II in the late 1940s and '50s, a concern arose over children who were supposedly being abused or neglected by Native parents. The Indian Adoption Project began in 1958, and by 1961, 2,300 children had been placed in foster or adoptive homes — almost all with non-Indian families.

Finally in 1978, ICWA gave Indian tribes and Indian parents the authority to intervene in child custody cases. The preference was to keep Indian children in Indian families. But there have been some highly publicized failures, and the Act is under fire again.

In 2002 President Bush proposed a Healthy Marriage Initiative intended to bolster marriages in all groups, not just Native Americans. When the program was finally funded in 2005, there were funds set aside specifically for tribal programs. Among several stated goals of the program are to "increase the percentage of Native American children who are raised by two parents in a healthy marriage environment" and to "increase the percentage of Native American women, men and children in homes that are free of domestic violence."

Finally, in January 2006, President Bush reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act with specific provisions for indigenous women. Under the Act:

  • Anyone of any race who commits a third assault against a Native women will be tried in federal court and face penalties of up to 10 years in federal prison.
  • A new Indian Country sex offender registry will be created to track serial offenders who travel between tribal nations.
  • New grant programs will support tribes battling domestic abuse.
  • Funding for a baseline study of domestic abuse in Indian Country has been authorized.

If nothing else, this last new law produced something remarkable — a meeting between the U.S. Department of Justice and tribal leaders like the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). In September 2006, the Department of Justice and the Indians sat down and, by all accounts, the feds listened.

"It was so powerful," said Juana Majel, a Pauma (CA) Indian on the NCAI. "There are moments in time in Indian history and you're glad you were a witness. It was DOJ's first time out the door and it seemed like it was going to be more a 'talking-to.' But DOJ said, 'No, this is your time.' "

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