KEAMS CANYON, Ariz. — A new study by the World Health Organization finds that one in three women is assaulted in her lifetime. For Native American women, that number is twice as almost as high at 61 percent.
The Hopi Nation in Northern Arizona is in the middle of what advocates call a domestic violence epidemic. But after years of secrecy, victims are starting to come forward.
One domestic violence survivor, a mother whose name can’t be used to protect her safety, suffered for years before she reported her husband to local authorities. He slapped her once before they were married. Then he started calling her names. And as his drinking got worse, so did his outbursts.
“While I was pregnant, he poked me real hard in my stomach. I had given, I guess, myself to him. So it took me a while to stop,” the woman said. She finally reported him to police after he threw a DVD player at her. She hid and made sure her kids were safe. They waited half an hour before reservation police arrived. “By then he had already kind of calmed down,” she said.
Her experience is typical of a domestic violence case on the reservation. It can take tribal police up to an hour to respond to a call because they’re low on staff and homes are far apart. Even when they arrive, there’s no shelter to take victims to on the tribe’s land. The closest one is an hour an a half away, and it’s usually full.
It’s easy to understand why victims weren’t reporting. The risk of revenge from an abuser is high, and while the reservation is spread out geographically, it’s extremely close-knit socially. Information travels quickly. And even when an abuser is in jail, his family can make life difficult for the victim.
“I got, I guess in a way, kind of harassed by the family. I was already put in that state. They treated me real bad, and then when the kids came around they didn’t even acknowledge them,” said the mother interviewed for this story.
Attorney Dorma Sahneyah is Hopi and works with tribes across the Western United States as a domestic violence specialist. She says in recent years things have started to change.
“Women are getting together and they’re talking about it. They’re trying to strategize and figure out what some of the solutions could be,” Sahneyah said.
Hopi victims started coming forward for a number of reasons, including stronger sentencing and a series of aggressive chief prosecutors. But it was a homegrown, Hopi-run nonprofit called the Hopi Tewa Women’s Coalition to End Abuse that put domestic violence into the spotlight.
The group started holding events about sexual assault and partner abuse in 2011. Roxanne Joseyesva works for the organization, and she said two days after their first conference, the calls came pouring in.
“People were calling and saying, 'I needed help' or 'I was abused,' 'I was sexually assaulted,' you know, things like that. And so we knew then that there was people out there who were just too afraid to come out,” Joseyesva said.
This year, 40 people have come forward and filed domestic violence cases on the reservation. Jill Engel is the chief prosecutor for the Hopi Tribe.
“I’ve seen many photos of the injuries that they’ve sustained at the hands of people they love. Including, being slashed with machetes, stabbed,” Engel said.
The tribe also changed its legal code last year to give perpetrators more jail time. Instead of spending one year in jail on an assault charge, convicted abusers could face up to two years per count. That’s still not nearly as many years as someone would face in a non-tribal court, where sentences range from two to 20 years. But Engel said it’s made a difference.
“I’ve been here two years. And it’s improved significantly, the number of women, I think that are reporting and actually following through with prosecution,” she said.
The Hopi mother interviewed for this story was able to leave her husband after police came to her house during an especially bad incident. But ultimately, she found the strength to get out when she saw him hurt their little girl. Traditionally, the Hopi are matrilineal, so girls carry on the family name.
“She’s, like, I guess important, because she’s gonna be carrying on our clan. So I have to take care of her more than the boy, it sounds bad, I know,” the woman said.
Her daughter used to be scared of men and get angry when anyone got near her mom. But since her parents’ divorce and her dad’s conviction, her mom said she’s been a lot calmer.