Research Study Findings: Violence Against Native American Women

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Research Study Findings:

Violence Against Native American Women

Barbara General, M.S.W., Ph.D. Student

School of Social Work

University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Faculty Mentors
Kate Kost, Ph.D., Associate Professor

Hilary Weaver, D.S.W., Associate Professor

School of Social Work

University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Funding for this research project provided by
NYS Office of Children and Family Services
through a contract with
College Relations Group

Center for Development of Human Services

Research Foundation of SUNY Buffalo State College
Contract Year 2004: Project 1037105/Award: 31176

Contract Year 2005: Project 1044831 /Award 34930


The prevalence rate of violence against Native American women is higher than that of any other racial group in the United States. However, there is currently very little empirical data explaining this social phenomenon in tribal and urban communities, with the available literature about violence against women predominately based on Caucasian women’s experiences of domestic violence. This review considers a conceptual framework focusing on the colonization of Native American peoples and turns to feminist and social learning theories to help explain violence against women in general before going on to further discuss the limitations of these theories in explaining the existence of violence against Native American women.

Note: The original version of this manuscript was edited and reformatted by CDHS Publications Services to optimize its usefulness as a research document primarily intended for CDHS trainers.


The phenomenon of violence against women is complex in nature, expanding across all socioeconomic and racial/ethnic lines. Affecting one in six women, male-to-female assaults are at least six times more likely to cause injuries to females than assaults caused by other females (Lawson, 2003). Violent behavior perpetrated against women is a public health concern that has long-lasting negative physical and mental health consequences for both women and their children (Wuest, Merrit-Gray, & Ford-Gilboe, 2004). The Center for Disease Control contends that the cost of rape, physical assaults, and stalking exceed $5.8 billion each year, with nearly $4.1 billion for medical and mental health care services (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2003).

Research on violence against women has increased dramatically over the last 20 years, yet there are still many gaps in society’s understanding of this social phenomenon. In particular, reliable information on minority women's experiences and domestic violence is still lacking in the literature (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). Indigenous women in the United States and Canada report more violent victimization than do women and men of other racial backgrounds, yet there is little empirical research that examines this phenomenon in indigenous communities (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000) across all disciplines.
Dobash & Dobash (1979) contend that in order to truly understand the nature of violence between intimates, research must go beyond the interacting couple and the isolated and abstracted social relationship. Instead, the violent behavior must be considered in perspective of its proper settings, both historical and contemporary, and the context that must be examined in relation to violence against indigenous women is the colonization of North America and its devastating impact on indigenous cultures and beliefs. It appears that the available literature on violence against Native American women uses mostly conceptual models, with little empirical data to support assertions. Thus, central to this review is a conceptual model that is based on a historical perspective that encompasses the colonization of Native Americans lands and culture. Empirical studies framed within feminist and learning theories will aid in understanding violence against women from a general Euro-Caucasian context.

Scope and Research Sources

This paper defines the concept of violence, identifies the target group and the more recent epidemiology studies, provides a brief historical perspective and analysis, includes empirical support from feminist and social learning theories, and concludes with remarks about the with limitations and discussion of the current research and an overall summary.

The following are academic search engines used to locate conceptual and empirical studies on violence against Native American women: Anthrosource, Ebscohost, Masterfile Select, Eric, Genderwatch, Infotrac, Onefile, Jstor, Psycinfo (Ovid), Psycarticles. The keywords typed in the search engines were: “violence against Native American women,” “violence against women studies,” “violence against aboriginal women,” “battered women’s studies,” “violence against indigenous women,” “structural violence and Native American women,” “Native American women and family violence studies,” “Native American victims,” “sexual assault and Native American women,” and “battered women and trauma.” These searches led to studies predominantly focused on the experiences of Caucasian women, leading to the understanding that the subject of violence against Native American women and interventions are inadequately represented in social science research. Additionally, and most importantly for this review, the representation of Native American women in the literature is next to nonexistent and is most likely reflective of the more generalized marginalization experience of Native peoples, and/or their somewhat remote relationship with the academic world.

Defining Violence Against Women

The terms of “violence” and “abuse” have often been used interchangeably by those who study domestic violence. However, according to Gelles (1985) violence and abuse are not conceptually equivalent. For example, the umbrella term “battered child syndrome” eventually gave way to multiple terms such as “child abuse,” “child neglect,” and “child maltreatment” in recognition of the fact that child abuse was not necessarily only physical, but also included malnutrition, failure to thrive, sexual abuse, education neglect, medical neglect, and mental abuse. Korbin (1981) points out that there are no universally accepted standards for child rearing and that thus there are no universally held terms for child abuse and neglect. Those seeking a culturally applicable term will face a predicament of choosing between a culturally relevant standard (in which behavior may be considered abusive or non-abusive, depending on the cultural framework) or an individual standard whereby violent acts are considered to be those behaviors that differ from the typical cultural standards of child rearing (Korbin, 1981).

In much the same way as the previously described child abuse example, the definition of domestic violence or violence against women varies and therefore a universal definition is nonexistent. Gelles and Straus (1979) define violence as “an act carried out with the intention or perceived intention of physically hurting another person.” Spanking and shoving are included in this definition, as well as injury or death. Gelles asserts that when violence against women became acknowledged as a social problem, researchers moved toward a broader definition to include sexual abuse, rape, and even pornography (Gelles, 1985). For the purposes of this review, the terms “violence against women” and “domestic violence” will be used interchangeably, encompassing a more recent definition by the United Nations General Assembly and including any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private (United Nations, 1993).


The 1999 Department of Justice American Indians and Crime Report stated that American Indians experience per capita rates of violence that are more than twice those of the U.S. resident population. The report also described the rate of violent crime against American Indian women as nearly 50% higher than that reported by black males (United States Department of Justice, 1999), with black males demonstrating violent behaviors seemingly receiving much more media attention and stigmatization than that of the perpetrators of the silent and seemingly invisible violence done against indigenous women. Physical assaults against American Indian females were 98 per 1,000 compared to 56 per 1,000 among black females or 40 per 1,000 among white females. Interestingly, 75% or more of the violence experienced by Native American women is committed by persons not of the same race (United States Department of Justice, 1999). This data suggests that non-Native perpetrators play a significant role in violence against Native American women. The 1995 National Violence against Women Survey results showed that American Indian women were more likely to report rape and physical assault victimization than women of other racial backgrounds. Some 61% of American Indian women reported physical assault; among African American women the statistic was 52.1%, and among white women it was 51.3% (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

A study prepared by the Ontario Native Women’s Association (2004) in Canada found that eight out of ten aboriginal women have been abused. From a national perspective, approximately 500 aboriginal women have gone missing from their communities across Canada in the last 20 years, yet the government, the media, and Canadian society continue to remain silent. In interviews that Amnesty International Canada conducted with victims' families, it seems that police appear to have repeatedly failed to protect aboriginal women and have also failed to investigate crimes against them thoroughly or promptly (Amnesty International, 2004). The implication of the investigations is that indigenous women are not receiving the social supports needed to transcend violent and tragic situations. Walker (1989) argued that cultural factors, including social institutions, provide ineffective responses with regard to protecting women and children or else they promote traditional socio-cultural norms that devalue women and that maintain such violence.
Most of the epidemiological studies (such as the Department of Justice reports and Violence Against Women surveys) indicate a high prevalence rate of violence against Native American women. These statistics were collected with the use of surveys or self-reports to obtain the data. Surveys represent an essential facet in the methodology of researching violence against women for the reason that they provide data about the regularity, incidence, and patterning of violence against women. However, gathering data from the survey method has weaknesses because surveys do not describe the violence and its impact; moreover, it is not tribal specific. Native American tribes are so diverse in social, economic, and political backgrounds that the quality of the data obtained can be considered mainly anecdotal, yet the current data prompts interest in further investigation that takes the culture and context of Indian life into account (Hamby, 2000).

Definition of “Native American Women”

The idea that “Indians” and now “Native Americans” are a single discrete people was an invention of Columbus and his European contemporaries, and this reference was perpetuated without a foundation in historical, cultural, or ethnographic reality (Salisbury, 1996). Many individuals in the dominant culture commonly refer to Native Americans as a single cultural entity and believe that come from and represent one cultural group (Hamby, 2000). The fact is that Native Americans constitute over 550 federally recognized tribal units and over 36 state-recognized tribal units, numerous nations, and some 252 languages (Herring, 1992). Thus the label “Native American” has been erroneously used to categorize and generalize information on nations that are distinct in culture, beliefs, and economic and social structures.

According to the Bureau of Census, a Native American is a Native American. This means that individuals can report they are Native American on the census survey. The census data indicates there are approximately 2,475,956 Native Americans and that in total they make up less than one percent of the U. S. population. However, that number reflects individuals who reported being Native American only. The figure increases to 4,119,301 (or 1.5% of the population) when individuals report that they are Native American and another race (United States Census, 2000). Conversely, tribal governments are much more discriminate and assert their rights to determine tribal members. Some tribal nations (such as the Senecas) consider an individual to be a member of the tribe if their mother is or was a member, with tribal membership passed down through the mothers’ bloodline (Weaver, 2005). Other nations are patrilineal and consider an individual to be a members based on his or her father’s membership.
For the purposes of this review, Native American females are all those who are considered a member of a tribal nation, whether it is through a traditional (hereditary) or an elective system supported by the federal government. In addition, the term Native American female is inclusive of women who self-identify as Native American based on their biological connection to a tribal nation but who have no membership due to not meeting tribal nation criteria, whether it is lack of blood quantum or not meeting the matrilineal or patrilineal standard. Note that the terms “Native American,” “indigenous,” and “aboriginal” will be used interchangeably to make references to the female descendents of the first peoples in North America.

Historical and Conceptual Framework

Intimate violence in Native American communities in the United States should be viewed not only from a statistical context, but also within the history of Euro-colonial relations with Native American nations (McGillavray & Comaskey, 1999, p. 22). It is debated whether violence against women is a new problem or whether it existed before colonization. Some have asserted it dates after the introduction of western influences (Hamby, 2000). Nevertheless, based on the sparse ethnographic research on Native American women, culture, and philosophies, gender relationships have changed (Klein and Ackerman, 1995). The impact of colonization and (for the most part) forced assimilation has changed the roles of native women, who have gone from having a valued position in there communities to leading lives marked by illness, domestic violence, and early death (Napoli, 2002).

Colonialism is not an abstract notion. It involves a real set of people and relationships and structures (Alfred, 1999). Colonization refers to a situation in which a dominant group embarks on a process to alter or eliminate the laws, customs, and belief systems of a community. It is characterized by an invasive structural and psychological relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, a relationship that is ultimately reflected in the dominant institutions, policies, histories, and literatures of the occupying powers (McGillvray & Comaskey, 1999). It must be noted that North America has not yet entered a postcolonial era, and what was originally Native American remains occupied by invaders from overseas. These settlers have appropriated Indian land and resources for their own advantage, while indigenous peoples who conducted themselves as independent nations since time immemorial continue to be forcibly subordinated (Churchill, 2003).
There has always been a “problem” of what to do with the indigenous peoples, beginning from the onset of Europeans settling in North America, and this problem was the cause of much effort and discussion for centuries (Parker, 1916). Early practices of extermination/racial genocide, seizure of lands, and assimilation seemed to the white colonials of the time to be the simplest way to deal with the Indian problem, since from their perspective the Indian tribes stood in the way of free reign over the land and all the natural resources that went with it (Garrett & Pichette, 2000). Starting in 1609, it is documented that the Virginia Company gave authorization for the kidnapping of indigenous children for the purpose of “civilizing” local indigenous populations through imposition of Christianity (Buckley, 2002). George Washington and his administration included provisions for clergymen to live with each tribe in order to teach the English language and Christian religion and to encourage peaceful relations with the U.S. government. Thomas Jefferson encouraged a Presbyterian school among the Cherokees and personally approved federal funding to build a Catholic church and maintain a priest for the Kaskaskia tribe. His successors followed suit. Such arrangements were mutually beneficial to both church and state (Buckley, 2002). The 1819 Civilization Fund Act, a federal law passed by Congress, provided grants to private agencies (primarily churches) to establish programs to “civilize” the Indian (Cross, Earle, & Simmons, 2000).
The supposed move from assimilation to removal marked a shift in U.S. policy toward citizens of tribal nations. Native Americans were no longer to be civilized in place or reduced to small reservations on a portion of their traditional lands. Instead, entire tribes were relocated west of the Mississippi River (American Journey Online, 1999). The Mississippi became the new permanent demarcation of white colonial settlement. In 1868, the Indian Peace Commission was formed to review the causes of Indian hostilities. Short on resolution, the Commission again recommended bringing Native Americans into white civilizations as a solution to their differences (Cross, et al, 2000).
What is clearly dismissed in early policy practices against Native Americans by the United States government is the failure to think of Native American tribes as human communities that change and develop over the years. The long history of social coercion of tribal nations, forcing them to give up their homeland territories, cultural beliefs, and tribal and religious practices left an indelible mark on the psychology of native peoples, with many of the social pathologies facing Native Americans today stemming from this oppression on the part of non-natives.

Cultural Violence

Poverty, inequality, social marginality, and domination of resources all produced unneeded suffering and death for indigenous peoples in North America. These conditions are not acts of nature but rather are the direct products of social arrangements created by Euro-colonizers in ways not easily noticed or clearly understood in today’s society (Pilisuk & Tennant, 1997). Galtung (1990) suggested that social arrangements are induced and are maintained by cultural violence. Cultural violence is seen as the symbolic sphere of Western civilization’s existence—exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science, and formal science (e.g., logic, mathematics) that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence. Structural violence is embedded in the social system and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances (Galtung, 1969). Over years, cultural violence has the tendency to make structural violence look, and even feel, right (or at least not wrong).

Pheterson (1986) asserts that internalized oppression is the integration and acceptance by individuals within oppressed groups of the prejudice against them within the dominant society. Internalized oppression is likely to consist of and be characterized by self-hatred and fear of violence, as well as by feelings of inferiority, resignation, powerlessness, and gratefulness for being allowed to survive. The internalization of social norms by Native Americans came from numerous social aspects such as the church, the educational system, and participation in the workforce. One prominent archetype in the psychology of many Native American people today is the memory of Indian boarding schools. For many Native Americans the boarding school experience left a profound effect on their personal lives as well as on their relationship to their families and communities (Graham, 1997).

Indian Boarding Schools

In 1879, after 100 years of warfare, Richard H. Pratt established the first off-reservation, military style boarding school for indigenous children in Pennsylvania (Lomawaima, 1993). The Carlisle Boarding School was developed specifically for Indian children because Pratt had concerns about mixing Indian and black children at the Hampton Normal Institution, an all-black school in Virginia administered by General Armstrong. Pratt and Hampton disagreed on racial mixing, but they did agree that without educated Indian women there would be no assimilation, with education of Native American girls being a key support factor in the more important work of training boys. To enter American society, the Indian male needed a mate who would encourage his success and prevent any backsliding. Pratt charged Indian women with embracing “heathen” rituals and superstitions and then passing them on to their children. Such Indian women were considered unfit as mothers and wives. Thus, a women’s education was extremely important but not so much for her own benefit as for that of her future husband. Pratt and Armstrong both insisted that Indian girls be taught “obedience.” In particular, General Armstrong believed that obedience was completely foreign to the native mind and that “discipline” would mediate civilization (Trennert, 1982).

The quality of treatment the children received in residential schools was poor, being characterized by low standards of education, hard work, poor quality food, rigid discipline, confinement, and lack of recreation (Graham, 1997). The number of Indian boarding schools established since 1879 is estimated to be in the hundreds, though many of the big boarding schools closed in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Based on ethnographic interviews with former Indian boarding school students, it appears that many returned to their native communities as young adults and experienced unresolved issues of anger, grief, and dependency (Graham, 1997). Left on their own to cope, they had only fragmented concepts of traditional parenting and family functioning and at the same time many had not fully taken on the values of white society (Seidman, Jacobson, Primeau, Burns & Weatherby, 1996). Many of these children, now grandparents and great-grandparents, were poorly prepared to become parents and spouses. Their parenting skills came from observing the detached and dysfunctional behavior of boarding school staff and administration. The heritage of the boarding school produced generations Native Americans who were alienated from their extended families and communities, and this experience of alienation may in fact account for some dysfunction in native families today (Seidman, et al., 1996).

Literature Review

While it seems that the literature available about Native Americans has increased in many disciplines in the last 20 years, empirical research to explain the violence against indigenous women in North America is next to nonexistent (Mihesuah, 1996). However, considering the process of assimilation of indigenous people over a period of centuries, it may be practical to hypothesize that the high prevalence rate of violence against Native women is due to generations of Native American men and women internalizing the gender norms of the dominant society.

The current empirical literature focuses on lower- to middle-class women who have experienced violence in their intimate relationships. While some empirical studies have included Native American women, the participant number is so small that the results cannot be generalized. The available research studies to explain why males assault women and why females allow abusive behavior to be directed at them by their intimate partners are complex, and there is no one single theory that can fully explain this social phenomenon.

Theoretical Frameworks

Gender is widely recognized to be an important empirical factor (or variable) in understanding many aspects of behavior. Feminist researchers contend that violence is part of a patriarchal system of coercive controls through which men maintain social dominance over women. Patriarchy is held to be an organized power structure that is used deliberately and purposely to control and subjugate women. The construction of male dominance in the social, economic, and political spheres of society directly influences the behavior of males and females in the social order (Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 1998).

Most feminists firmly rebuff the idea that violence against women results from individual psychopathology, because embracing that notions can be a means by which to absolve men in general for their control of women. The perpetration of violence is seen as the undisguised expression of inherent cultural sanctions that allow men to use violence and intimidation to control women (Jennings & Murphy, 2000). The empirical evidence driven by feminist theoretical perspectives with regard to violence against women is sparse when considered in the light of the diversity of men and women that engage in and encounter violence in their relationships, but ample enough to gain a general understanding that domination and control are contributing factors that need further investigation.
For one year, Hall (2000) observed a group of poor white youth living in a postindustrial urban setting in the Northeast. When Hall asked the youths about their future wives and families they articulated male supremacy stereotypes. Males were to be the breadwinners and female were to stay at home and take care of the children. A male youth commented about his future wife: “…she should be home raising the kids…it’s all part of the contract of being married…the wife takes care of the husband and the husband gets free time” (p. 476). When asked to describe their community, none of the boys mentioned domestic violence. However, when asked to describe their lives at home and their relationships with girls and women, they revealed that the females in their lives (such as mothers, girlfriends, and others in the neighborhood) were current victims of abuse. None of the boys were critical about this violence, and most saw it as normative. For example, one male stated that “…he [his father] pushes her around a bit, like if the house gets messy or the food is burned…my dad apologizes…and he is usually true when he says he is sorry. It’s just that she doesn’t always do what she’s supposed to do” (Hall, 2000, p. 478). This particular male’s criticism of his mother’s housekeeping warranted (in his opinion) her being pushed around. Another youth sympathized with his mother’s boyfriend “…she should stop nagging him, leave him alone…this makes him haul off and swat her. They [females] should give us space (Hall, 2000, p. 478).” Hall’s observations included witnessing leaders of the local community center and public school turn a blind eye to the aggressive behavior perpetrated by male youth toward female peers. The community center and school officials did not intervene to correct the behavior of the youth. Hall concluded that by not challenging the violent ideology and behaviors among youth, the institutions that structure the lives of white youth are complicit in the normalization of abusive behavior.
Xu, et. al. (2005) estimates the prevalence of and risk factors for intimate partner violence in China. One aspect of their study concluded that violence against women is prevalent in China, with strong links to male patriarchal values and conflict resolutions. In terms of domestic authority, attitudes, and cultural beliefs, Chinese female respondents who believed it is important for a man to show his wife or partner “who is the boss” and believed it is a wife's obligation to have sexual intercourse with her husband even if she does not feel like it were more likely to experience intimate partner violence. The hidden violence that is embedded in traditional female obligations to their male partners is invisible to the eye and thus receives little research attention. As a result, many individuals may regard violence as acceptable if it does not leave a physical mark and the more subtle form of emotional violence being perpetrated is never addressed. Additionally, another survey conducted among females of three provinces in South Africa demonstrated that more than a third of the respondents agreed that a man beating a woman was a sign of love (Abrahams & Jewkes, 2005).
Feminist theory with regard to rigid gender roles helps to explain violence against women as well as to explain violence within lesbian, gay, and bisexual couples. Many may think that a male being violent and controlling in his relationship with his male partner is understandable, given internalized norms of appropriate male behavior, yet conversely these instances when a female exerts physical abuse toward her female partner may be puzzling to some because the patriarchal factor is absent. In order to overcome misconceptions and to assist gay and lesbian victims of violence it is probably necessary to examine the nature of the violence within the context of the relationship to gain insight into the underlying power structure. That is, it becomes necessary to determine which partner of the relationship has established physical or psychological power over the other partner (Potoczniak, Mourot, Corsbie-Burnett, & Potocniak, 2003). In addition, it is important to look at a variety of factors that may influence lesbian and gay individuals' relative risk for and protection from psychological, physical, or sexual abuse in childhood or adulthood.
From a social learning perspective, violent behavior as a form of communication displayed by parents or guardians in childhood may possibly determine whether individuals later perpetrate violence in heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Parental and guardian behavior teaches children what is appropriate within the family. Thus, children learn to be violent by observing their intra-family aggressive behaviors. Children also learn aggressive and violent behavior by being exposed to it their surrounding community. According to this perspective, each generation learns to be violent by being a participant in a violent family and this situation is further reinforced by their society (Diamond & Muller, 2004). The social learning process is accomplished by two important mechanisms: modeling and reinforcement. Modeling is an important tool in learning behavior, since children learn by watching and imitating others. Reinforcement occurs when certain behavior is rewarded and other behavior is punished (Wallace, 2005).
Abrahams and Jewkes (2005) conducted a cross-sectional questionnaire survey of 1,368 randomly selected male municipal workers in Cape Town, South Africa. The purpose was to assess the effects of witnessing violence against their mothers in childhood on those men's use of violence in a range of settings in their adulthood. Positive associations were found between the witnessing of abuse during childhood and later arrest as a result of theft, violent behavior, or illegal possession of a gun. The strongest association was found between the witnessing of abuse during childhood and use of physical violence against a partner (Abrahams & Jewkes, 2005). Violence may originate from imitating parental or guardian displays, and reinforcement of such behavior is implied as South Africa experiences high levels of violent crime within the society. Statistics collected by Interpol indicate that rates of rape, murder, robbery, and violent theft are higher there than in any other Interpol member state (Abrahams & Jewkes, 2005).
In a study performed by Gych, Wachsmuth-Schlaefer, and Klockow (2002) children ages 3 ½ to 7 years old were drawn from agencies serving battered women and the MacArthur Story Stem Battery (MSSB) was administered to them after the children were separated into two separate groups: control and experimental. The MSSB includes nine story stems, each presenting a dilemma or issue to be resolved, that each child participant was asked to finish by showing or telling the administrator “what happens next.” Results showed that the responses of children whose mothers had been victims of spousal abuse differed from those of children from nonviolent families in both the content of their representations and the way in which they communicated their narratives. Children drawn from the agencies serving battered women portrayed their mother in their stories as less nurturing, less affectionate, and less authoritative than the other group. They did not, however, view them as more aggressive, more rejecting, or more neglectful. The children’s self-representations were less positive, but not more negative, than were those of children from the community sample. Analyses showed that inter-parent aggression predicted children’s expectation that conflict would arise and that children who had experienced such aggression tended to avoid engaging in the narrative task. Inter-parental aggression and father-child aggression had additive effects on representations of mothers; on the other hand, children whose father (or father figures) directed higher levels of aggression toward both them and their mothers portrayed mothers less positively. This suggests that witnessing aggression within the family may affect children’s developing beliefs about close relationships and may in fact be a process by which these experiences give rise to later problems in social and emotional functioning (Gych, et al., 2002).
Muller and Diamond’s (2004) study examined the association between witnessing domestic violence and the long-term psychological adjustment of college students. As per their hypothesis, results suggest that it is not just witnessing physical violence that has long-term effects on children, but also that witnessing inter-spousal aggression of a nonviolent nature may be just as harmful. College students who had witnessed physical domestic violence and students with a history of witnessing major psychological domestic violence demonstrated higher levels of psychopathology than both individuals who witnessed low levels of psychological domestic violence and those who witnessed no domestic violence. As noted by Muller and Diamond (2004), generalizability of the study is limited by the fact that the participants were all college students and excluded individuals unlikely to attend college due to financial reasons and further excluded individuals who may be socially immobilized by their psychopathological conditions.
Brickfield (1999) contends that poverty is a risk factor for domestic violence, as well as lower educational level and younger age. Families with annual incomes below $15,000 were more than 22 times as likely to experience some form of abuse when compared to families with annual incomes above $30,000 per year (Lutenbacher, 2002). Over 28% of the Native American population falls below the poverty line, compared with less than 13% of the general population. The percentage of high school and college graduates among Native Americans is also lower than that among the general population (Bagley, Angel, Dilworth-Anderson, Liu, & Schinke, 1995).
Other risk factors for injuries to women as a result of domestic violence are alcohol or drug abuse by male partners and having a partner who is unemployed (Minow, 1999). Many (but not all) Native American tribes have very high rates of alcohol abuse and dependence (Ehlers, Wall, Garcia-Andrade, & Philips, 2001). Victimization has been associated with substance use and abuse among women in a number of research studies. For example, research has shown that women who have alcohol or drug problems, or both, are more likely to have a history of being sexually abused and physically assaulted than women without such problems. High rates of sexual and physical abuse among women in drug abuse treatment programs have also been found, with some studies reporting that as many as two out of three women entering treatment have a history of sexual or physical abuse (Logan, Walker, Cole, & Leukefeld, 2002).
Miller and Down’s (1993) comparison study concluded that women in alcohol treatment programs experienced higher rates of childhood victimization, significantly more severe violence by fathers, and more childhood sexual abuse than did women in drinking and driving classes and women in households. Women in treatment with alcohol problems also experienced significantly more childhood sexual abuse than did women without alcohol problems in other treatment settings. Also, women with alcohol problems experienced significantly higher levels of violence by partners than did the women in the household sample. The lack of family and community support may mediate negative responses (such as alcohol and drug use) to cope with the pain of domestic violence. Therefore, it is important that abused women have supportive relationships because they help women feel connected (Davis, 2002).
Levendosky, Huth-Bocks, Shapiro, and Semel’s (2003) study of 103 preschool children and their mothers demonstrated that domestic violence was significantly and directly related to maternal psychological functioning, parenting effectiveness, and attachment. Domestic violence negatively affected women's psychological functioning, as determined by depressive and posttraumatic symptoms, a finding consistent with previous theoretical and empirical literature (Levendosky, et al., 2003). Whatever the theoretical framework used to explain violence against women, consequences are children of female victims are at risk of being affected psychologically and/or physically as well.
Vasgue (1998) insists there are no real differences between the personalities of battered women and the personalities of other women. Abused women are not masochistic or looking for men who will hurt them, and their personal histories are generally similar to those of others. The only variable that has been identified as being different with some battered women is that they were themselves abused, neglected, or mistreated as children. Thus, it may be hypothesized that the battering scenario feels familiar (Vasques, 1998). Although personalities may be somewhat similar, the histories and culture of individual women varies and there needs to be a better understanding why women of color experience violence at higher degrees of violence than Caucasian women.

Limitations of Research

The empirical research to understand violence against women is predominately limited to Caucasian women’s experiences and does not capture the historical, social, and economic context of Native American life over the last 500 years. Tribal communities today are socially and economically diverse and many are divided on their beliefs and practices—this owing to the impact of colonization (Alfred, 1999). It does not seem fitting to frame the social problem of violence against Native American women within Western theoretical frameworks based on Euro-white values and on the observations of Euro-white women, because doing so does not provide a better understanding of contributing factors from a social, cultural, and colonization experience perspective.

Liberal- to radical-feminist theorists agree that the history of women’s oppression has lead to women’s inequality in our society, but it is primarily the radical feminist theorists who state that there is a need to uncover what is considered “normal” in western society. With regard to this particular precept, it is also important to ask this question: Is it good practice for any academic discipline studying human behavior to apply theories emanating from Western thought to Native Americans whose peoples and societies have been subjugated and exterminated by Westerners, and would not such an evaluation merely continue to assert and impose Western ideological practices and values?
Barker (1997) argues that existing academic literature indicates that the behaviors of individuals are generally judged only from the context of Western culture, meaning that Western culture is the starting point and benchmark by which other cultures are judged. This practice is based on the assumption that white culture is superior to other cultures (Nkomo, 1992). Sheurich and Young (1997) identified Western biases in the research literature as “epistemological racism.” It is argued that researchers using positivism are not necessarily considered overtly or covertly racist as individuals, nor is it an underlying intent by institutions or society to conspire in favor of whites. However, either Sheurich and Young simply overlooked the experience of colonization and oppression of Native peoples in North America, or the secondary and post-secondary school systems have apparently worked very efficiently in the marginalization of Native American peoples. In addition, if epistemological racism is not a conscious move, there is a need to examine minority research studies and then determine whether the results have been generalized to the dominant population or have received the same attention as research studies conducted on Caucasians.
It is important for academics and researchers to understand and accept the notion that power over another society does not merely originate through coercion or cultural and political repression. Such dominant power can also manifest as cultural violence that operates (albeit in a more subtle fashion) through educational systems that set forth precepts about how societies “should” work. Researchers need to consider the way that scientific discourses (studies and projects) may serve as a means through which socio-cultural and political power operates, namely by the way such “knowledge” acts to control members of society by defining what is to be considered “normal” or expected (Elias, Oneil, & Sanderson, 2004).


There is little quantitative and qualitative research on violence against Native American women in existing social sciences research literature. However, many of the epidemiological studies indicate that the incidence of violence against Native American women is higher than that found within any other racial group in North America. How much of the variance in violent victimization may be explained by demographic, social, and environmental factors is unclear. In addition, social and economic factors vary across the more than 500 tribal nations in the United States, and therefore the epidemiological reports may be seen as anecdotal in nature (Jumper-Thurman, 2003, et. al.).

The conceptual literature indicates that Native American women of many tribal nations have gone from having a valued position in their communities to leading lives marked by illness, early domestic violence, and early death (Napoli, 2002). Without a good understanding of the history of the relationships between the colonizers and Native Americans, it is difficult for non-Native American individuals to grasp how intensely colonialism has impacted Native American communities. It is also difficult for such persons to understand the mindset and behavior of indigenous peoples. It is clear, however, that the prevalence of Eurocentric discourses about Native peoples has prevented a critique of colonialism and a discussion of the adverse effects that colonization had on these peoples and their family systems (Waterfall, 2002).
The current research on violence against women is based on Western values and primarily on the experiences of Euro-white females, but it seems that that this limited research is being imposed on Native Americans to explain their maladaptive behaviors despite the unique history and psychology of Native American peoples. In general, while feminist and social learning theories attempt to explain violence against women from a macro and micro perspective, and such theories do not speak to the colonization of Native Americans—a context that is of key importance in understanding the contemporary pathologies in Native American communities. The Native women’s Association of Canada asserts that violence in aboriginal communities is a direct outcome attributable to colonization and cultural genocide. Domestic violence in such communities is a learned behavior that continues on a multigenerational basis, affecting actions, values, beliefs, and attitudes, and the end result of this behavior pattern is that it weakens or destroys the peace and well-being of the aboriginal individual, family, community, and nationhood (Native Women’s Association of Canada, 2004).
It is important to note that any normalization of violence against women in Native American communities is a major barrier to the well-being of women, children, and tribal nations as a whole. Children witnessing and experiencing abuse in their family of origin have an increased risk of either being an abuser or becoming a recipient of abuse in their adult lives, resulting in a cycle of abuse that continues with future generations (Lemmey, McFarlane, Wilson, & Malecha, 2001).
Several academics, including as Alfred (1997), Smith, (1999), and Waterfall (2002), encourage indigenous peoples to disengage from current neo-colonial and constitutional colonial politics in favor of advocating and working toward decolonization or anti-colonial initiatives. This is because the actual practices of Native American social work are embedded within a neo-colonial context that does not assist in working toward building stronger tribal nations, but instead further reinforces the assimilation of native peoples. As a result of this research, it seems quite clear to this author (a Native American academic) how and why the traumatic experience of colonization keeps reformulating itself.

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