The Struggle for Safety and Sovereignty, A Spiritual Foundation

The origins of the movement for the safety of Native women are deeply rooted in the spirituality of the grandmothers who gave it life. In the early years of the movement, the grandmothers as Native women were naturally connected to their spiritual beliefs, ceremonies, and practices of their nations. Based on the Indigenous beliefs of the grandmothers the relationship between spirituality and the struggle for safety is directly connected. It is organic.

“It is our belief that we are spirits on a human journey. In that way, every step we take in our human life is a spiritual act. Every word we speak is a conversation with the creator.”—Tillie Black Bear

The spirituality of the movement is a natural extension of the way of being as Native women and peoples. The foremothers as tribal women carried into the developing movement for the safety of Native women beliefs held by their tribes over centuries since their beginning. The movement for safety was a reflection of who they were as daughters of their tribal nations.

In the early years, women opened their homes to other women in need, and the children that came with their mothers. In the seventies, we did this as women helping other women, sisters helping sisters, as relatives.”—Tillie Black Bear

The beliefs of Indigenous nations held women as sacred and respect a cultural foundation of relationships. These beliefs were natural protections and community safeguards for women within their nations. The introduction of violence against Native women was part of the colonization of the Indigenous nations by foreign governments, including the United States, and other countries around the world. The very laws and policies of the United States endangered Native women and eroded these social protections for Native women.

This subject is very sacred because it addresses the heart of who we are, our religion. We have our way of living as Tlingit peoples. Being required to develop Tlingit responses is unrealistic because of the cost and because state and federal responses are not based on the world view of the Tlingits.”—Mike Jackson, Tlingit Elder and retired Alaska State Magistrate Judge.1

The long history of violence committed by the United States through the process of colonization is
well understood. The United States, acting through Congress, acknowledged and apologized for these official acts stating it “recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes.”2 In response to this reality, Tillie Black Bear often said, “We are a movement of resistance to colonization.”

Wiping of the Tears Ceremony, February 23, 2004, Washington, D.C.

In 1995, following the passage of the Violence Against Women Act services for women continued to be tribally based and grounded in the specific beliefs and healing ceremonies of the women to be served. These services were based on relationships, and the women seeking safety were viewed as relatives. This organic linkage between tribal beliefs and the women to be served was an Indigenous approach to the wellness and healing of the woman from the abuse. The western approach of criminal prosecution was not, and for many Indian nations continues to be, not an option.

While federal grant programs limit the project purposes and services that can be offered, tribal-based services are essential for Native women. These services often are not needed for one time but are essential as ongoing support as the woman continues her healing journey. To be meaningful these services must reflect the beliefs of the women to be served. The concept of victim services being statutorily defined is often in conflict with tribally based services that are specific to each tribal nation.

As a social justice movement, the grandmothers found guidance in their tribal beliefs. One example of this leadership was the Wiping of the Tears Ceremony held at the Senate Hart building on February 23, 2004. The event was hosted to inform and increase awareness of members of Congress of the need to reauthorize the 2005 Violence Against Women Act to include the Safety for Indian Women title. The new tribal title asserted the federal trust responsibility to Indian tribes in safeguarding the lives of Native women.

Quilt Walk for Justice, U.S. Supreme Court, December 7, 2015

On December 7, 2015, hundreds of people walked in front of the United States Supreme Court to send a message of no to the Dollar General case. At 9:00 AM, when hundreds arrived and began circling the sidewalk in front of the Court, a social media thunderclap in support of the Quilt Walk for Justice reached over 2 million people. When the case began, the walk paused and those gathered outside and across Indian Nations joined together in a national prayer for justice and safety for Native women. Traditional Chief Arvol Looking Horse led the national prayer for the safety of Native women that looked to a greater power than the United States Supreme Court. The national prayer reflected the strong belief of the people in prayer as a foundation for all components of one’s life. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who supported and assisted Tillie Black Bear and the movement over many decades, shared thoughts before leading the national prayer.

“We are the First Nations people here today. We come on behalf of our First Nations as one voice, one prayer, and united as relatives. We are the voice of our ancestors, our prayers, our songs. Today, we come here to support our relative during the hearing going on now inside the Supreme Court. Today, we say from this day forward no more abuse to women and children. We have come to this place after all the years and generations of abuse to women of this Turtle Island. Today, as we walk with our relatives, we represent ourselves as the original people showing that we honor our traditions, our nation, our beautiful way of life here on Turtle Island. We honor the women as the life-givers, Mother Earth as the source of life, not a resource.”

Connie Black Bear Brushbreaker traveled from the Rosebud Indian Reservation to join Chief Arvol Looking Horse to sing a traditional Lakota encouragement song honoring women. She introduced it by explaining, “the song I am going to share today is one that my mother, Tillie Black Bear, always sang in her work in the women’s movement since the mid 70’s.

The Shawl Ceremony, Capital, Washington, D.C., September 17, 2019

This organic link between the spirituality of the grandmothers of the movement for safety continues today. It has shaped and guided the movement and is recognized in the saying, “Women Are Sacred.” On the 25th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act a celebration was held on the lawn at the capital in Washington DC. It was sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. The celebration began with an opening prayer song by Juana Majel Dixon gifted to our movement by her mother, elder Loraine Dixon, in 2001.

Following the prayer song Carmen O’Leary, a member of the Board of Directors of NIWRC, led a Shawl Ceremony in honor of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and missing and murdered Native women. Elder Jessie Johnnie of the Sitka Tribe gifted the Shawl Ceremony to the movement in 2004. An honor song accompanied the shawl ceremony.

Today we must remember who this is really about the women who are not here today. The shawls represent the women that are not here and what they went through.”—Carmen O’Leary, Board of Directors, NIWRC.

The 25th anniversary celebration of VAWA reflected the ceremonies, cultural practices, and spirituality of our movement for the safety of Native women. The culture of our movement is based in spirituality, respect, and honoring of women as sacred. The VAWA 2005, Safety for Indian Women title, was passed stating specific  findings including, “the unique legal relationship of the United States to Indian tribes creates a federal trust responsibility to assist tribal governments
in safeguarding the lives of Indian women”.3 The concept of “safeguarding” has a deeper meaning than the western criminal justice system’s prosecution of perpetrators. Safeguarding is more wholistic, encompassing the wellbeing of the survivors of violence to continue their journey in life.

This tribal worldview of safety and justice for Native women offers assistance in understanding the purpose and focus of federal legislation including the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and Family Violence Prevention Services Act, and new legislation including SURVIVE and various MMIW bills.

During the 2019 Violence Against Women Consultation Daphne Joe, representing the Asa’carsarmiut Tribe, clearly stated the role of federal legislation to Indian tribes. “The federal programs providing resources must be based on our tribal way of life. Federal resources can help us but not by changing who we are, but by supporting who we are as Yup’ik people, who we are Alaska Natives.”

As we organize to reauthorize and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act and the 35th anniversary of the Family Violence Prevention Services Act, it is helpful to look to the spiritual foundation of the movement for the safety of Native women. The western approaches to providing safety are important but not foundational to restoring the sacred status of Native women within their nations.

As women of the movement we play many roles. One is to understand and reform those laws, policies, lack of resources, and so much more that continues to separate us as Native women. Another is to restore the sovereignty and protections that are original to our Indian tribes.”—Tillie Black Bear


1. Mike Jackson, Restoration Magazine, NIWRC, Vol. 14, Issue 3, at 39 (2017).

2. Apology to Native Peoples of the United States, H.R. 3326, page 45,….

3. Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005, Title IX Safety for Indian Women Act, Section 1, Public Law 109-162,….