Healing As Community

By Heather Bruegl, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin/Stockbridge-Munsee, Policy Specialist, NIWRC

October has been recognized nationally since 1987 as Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). According to the National Institute of Justice report, more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime and are at least two times more likely to experience sexual violence.1 Thanks to strong-hearted leadership by survivors, advocates, and allies like Tillie Black Bear, Members of Congress, state and Tribal policymakers have strengthened laws, policies, and responses, increasing safety for Native women. Tillie and many others provided the political will to educate and inform policymakers.

Considered the grandmother of the movement to end violence against women in the United States and across Tribal Nations, Tillie Black Bear, Sicangu Lakota, was instrumental in bringing national awareness to the violence that Indigenous women faced in Indian Country. A survivor of domestic violence herself, Tillie made it her mission to educate about the disparities women face in Indian Country and the need for change to restore sovereignty and increase women’s safety. In 1978, Tillie helped to organize a national movement. She testified before Congress about domestic violence and the federal trust responsibility the U.S. Government has in assisting Tribes in protecting women.2 Tillie stressed the importance and sacredness of Indigenous women, “even in thought, women are to be respected.”3

To honor Tillie’s legacy and the healing camps she organized with White Buffalo Calf Woman’s Society, the NIWRC hosted a series of virtual healing sessions for survivors, thrivers (those who don’t deem themselves victims), and sexual assault and domestic violence advocates in October 2022. The Tillie Black Bear Women Are Sacred Day Virtual Healing Camps included 11 sessions designed to help promote care, community, support, and healing. The healing camp offered a wide range of sessions, including how to create a healthy work culture for advocates, facilitating talking circles, creating talking sticks, music, youth organizing, using essential oils, sewing, arts and crafts, cooking, healthy eating, humor, dance, and exercise. Each session offered a giveaway for three participants per session.

The first of the 11 sessions was a Purification Ceremony with Lila Kills In Sight (Sicangu Lakota), who discussed the importance of culture and ceremony in healing. “All of you, everything you are doing is for the betterment of our way of life for our women, our children.”4 Lila went on to say that domestic violence is a monster and evil. The response from the participants was overwhelmingly positive. Lila discussed using your voice to create change, which resonated with attendees, some of whom, when asked what one takeaway was, many responded that they plan to use their voices more and to hold space for difficult conversations when they receive pushback appropriately.

Each preceding session was equally brilliant. The NIWRC was honored to continue coordinating with Connie Brushbreaker, Tillie’s daughter, for several sessions. Not only did Connie host a session on wellness and ribbon skirts, but she was also instrumental in coordinating facilitators for healing sessions. She shared her mother’s work and how she witnessed it growing up. 

Session five importantly addressed how to facilitate talking circles for survivors and advocates. Session presenter Carmen O’Leary (Cheyenne River Sioux) and Director of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains shared, “Tillie's words and role model impacted my work since first meeting her. Keeping Tillie's teachings alive is so important to the safety of Native women and the lifeways that they embody. It was an honor to be part of the healing camps, and I hope to see this as an annual event”.

Participants were further provided with how to create a work environment supporting healing. Often advocates are survivors. Being thoughtful and intentional in creating a workspace that promotes healing is extremely important. In session 11, Scheduling Self Care, Nicole Matthews (Anishinaabe, White Earth Band of Ojibwe) and Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition discussed how her organization promotes the health and wellness of staff. “As organizations, we have a responsibility in creating care within the organization for our people who are doing hard work,”6 she said.

Many Tribal programs are funded by the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A priority for FVPSA is to provide funding to support domestic violence victims.7 FVPSA helps survivors access the resources that are so desperately needed. These resources include housing, health care, violence-prevention resources, child support, and other resources, including creating a National Indian Resource Center, like the NIWRC, to create space for survivors and advocates to heal and create community.

Currently, 10% of funding under FVPSA is awarded to Indian Tribes and Tribal organizations. Funding supports public awareness efforts, primary and secondary prevention of family violence, domestic violence, and dating violence, and provides immediate shelter and supportive services for victims of family violence, domestic violence, or dating violence, and their dependents. Presently, FVPSA is up for reauthorization. This critical funding is needed to continue to help respond to domestic violence and provide vital resources for survivors. Despite Tribally centered resources offered to survivors and their dependents, funding, and services remain nonexistent for over one-half of all Indian nations. Given the many challenges survivors, advocates, and allies face with advocating for change in laws, policies, and the removal of systemic barriers, we cannot forget what survivors need beyond the failed systemic responses they encounter. 

1 Andre B. Rosay, “Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men,” NIJ Journal 277 (2016): 38-45.
2 Lakota Times, “Celebrating the Life of Tillie Black Bear,” Lakota Times, Sept. 26, 2019, accessed Nov. 10, 2022, n8ve.net/scLgoOxW.
3 Restoration Magazine, “The National Tillie Black Bear Women Are Sacred Day,” National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, October 2019, accessed Nov. 10, 2022.
4 National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Purification Ceremony through the Sweathouse/Lodge, presented by Lila Kills In Sight (2022, Lame Deer: National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center), Zoom Presentation.
5 Carmen O’Leary (Director of Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains) in an email discussion with Heather Bruegl in November 2022.
6 National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Scheduling Self-Care, presented by Nicole Matthews (2022, Lame Deer: National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center), Zoom Presentation.
7 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “Family Violence Prevention & Services Act Program,” accessed Nov. 16, 2022, n8ve.net/h6lATcFC.