ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Cases of domestic violence against Indigenous women and children and instances of sexual assault increased over the past year as nonprofit groups and social workers scrambled to meet the added challenges that stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic, advocates said Tuesday.
Their testimony came in the opening session of a two-day summit focused on ending violence against Indigenous women and children. Native American leaders from pueblos throughout New Mexico and from the Navajo Nation gathered virtually for the event.
The victim advocates who shared their stories pointed to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that were instituted in the early months of the pandemic. Many domestic violence victims were stuck at home with their abusers, believing there was nowhere else to turn while advocates themselves faced challenges getting to work and finding new ways to connect with victims and share information about resources.
They called it a "shadow pandemic," saying it has had ripple effects for victims, law enforcement and advocacy groups.
Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said tribally based advocates and other organizers from Shiprock to Nambe and Santo Domingo used the past year to reinforce existing mutual aid networks. They learned many lessons in doing so that will help “plant the seeds for change”' as communities begin to emerge from the pandemic, she said.
“When we return to our gatherings and ceremonies, deer dinners, feasts and dances, though we will be missing some who we lost and loved dearly, the lessons of this past year will not be in vain,” said the mother and Laguna Pueblo member. “It is my sincere hope that when we all leave our time here together, we are inspired to make things better — better for our women, better for our children and for all the people we love who might experience violence in their lives.”
Charley said it's going to be different — it has to be.
The coalition, which organized the summit, and its partners have been working for decades to address a problem that only in recent years began to make headlines as more Indigenous people went missing or turned up dead. Native American women have been victimized at astonishing rates, with federal figures showing that they — along with non-Hispanic Black women — have experienced the highest rates of homicide.
An Associated Press investigation in 2018 found that nobody knows precisely how many cases of missing and murdered Native Americans happen nationwide because many cases go unreported, others aren’t well documented, and no government database specifically tracks them.
Sherriann Moore is deputy director of the Tribal Affairs Division within the U.S. Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women. She told those attending the summit that some programs have been reorganized to address tribal concerns about bureaucratic hurdles for accessing assistance and grant funding.
Moore also discussed the Biden administration's proposed spending for addressing violence against women. She said the recommendation of $1 billion would nearly double the current budget and would include money for new programs ranging from restorative justice and protections for transgender victims to support for women at tribal colleges and universities.
She urged tribal leaders to lobby Congress for more funding and to push for reauthorization of federal laws including the Violence Against Women Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act.
Gail Starr, clinical coordinator of the Albuquerque Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Collaborative, said the pandemic helped to illuminate how few safety nets there are, particularly for survivors of sexual assault and other violence. She and others talked about the need to find safe housing for them and even cellphones so they have a way to reach out for help.
Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. Jenelle Roybal said her community north of Santa Fe is starting a pilot project in which tribal police will partner with the U.S. Marshals Service on cases involving missing and slain Indigenous victims. The pueblo also is focused on educating young tribal members about healthy relationships.
Roybal said education will be key to stopping the cycle, pointing out that half of the homeless women and children in the U.S. are fleeing from domestic violence.
“When you think about all the women and children who aren’t receiving the help they need, it’s very upsetting,” she said. “Just moving forward and assisting each other is definitely what we need to do.”