Californians are living amid a crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women – with at least 40% of deaths being connected to domestic violence or intimate partner violence. November is Native American Heritage Month so everyone should reflect on the impacts of domestic violence on our communities and what we can do to better support people experiencing violence. Within Native communities, it’s important that when we talk about domestic violence, it is not divorced from the generations of violence we have experienced. As Chief Justice of the Yurok Tribe, I know how serious the problem is.
We can trace the deep-rooted violence in Native communities from the invasion only 175 years ago, when the Gold Rush drew settlers to California who killed an estimated 75% of Yurok members by massacre or disease. Instead of protecting us, our first experiences with law enforcement were when officers stole Native children to force them into Indian boarding schools, tearing families apart and erasing our culture—a story that has touched all of our families. Many living Yurok citizens’ parents and grandparents experienced the internment camp-like conditions in the so-called boarding schools. My Tribe’s language is a clear reminder of the scars that remain. Translated into English, the Yurok word for “law enforcement” is “men who steal children.”
Now, California has the largest Native population in America and we are left to endure the lasting effects of the violence imposed on our ancestors. It may seem like this is only in the past, but we still grapple with historical trauma and face similar threats today. Domestic and gun violence plague our communities, with guns being used in nearly half of all American Indian and Alaska Native intimate partner homicides in the U.S. Violence against our community has left us with a distraught core that we need to heal by providing culturally appropriate support and resources for our communities.
Unequal support systems and mistrust in law enforcement make it more difficult to seek much needed help. Yuroks are the largest surviving Tribe in California, yet we have gaps in services, including law enforcement and victim services. Access to systems meant to support us through and out of violent situations varies greatly across the state’s 109 tribes. Safety options may be out there, but we need to ensure they are available and helpful to those that need them.
We can start by educating tribal members on how to use legal pathways, like a Domestic Violence Restraining Order. These can be useful tools for violence prevention and a vital part of supportive solutions.
Additionally, we consider culture as the way out of this long line of violence and the path towards healing. Our traditional lifeways are a significant source of strength. Grounded in culturally responsive programs, support from my Tribe might look like assigning advocates to people experiencing violence to ensure they get what they need, whether it’s helping their kids get to school or reconnecting with a dance family. People experiencing violence are experts in their own needs, so we teach them to stand up for themselves to get those resources and support to heal. We also require abusers to address the causes of their behavior.
California is beginning to move in the right direction by improving systems meant to support communities experiencing violence, but more work needs to be done. We need to assure that when solutions are offered, Tribes and their citizens have access to those services. We will work to make those services culturally responsive if state policymakers and leaders help us gain access.
Abby Abinanti, Yurok Chief Judge is an enrolled Yurok Tribal member and was the first California tribal woman to be admitted to the State Bar of California. She has been a Yurok Tribal Court Judge since 1997 and was appointed Chief Tribal Court Judge in 2007.