Advocates’ hopes high for domestic violence hotline for Native women

Advocates say that besides cultural and language differences, mainstream hotline workers may not understand other challenges faced by some victims in Indian Country – vast open spaces, few police and a bewildering legal system. (Photo by Wolfgang Staudt/flickr via Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Rape and domestic violence against Native women have reached “epidemic proportions,” but the hotlines that could help are often unprepared for the unique cultural needs of tribal women who may live in rural areas with little support and a bewildering legal system.

But that could be changing.

Sometime this year, the National Domestic Violence Hotline expects to take the first call at a hotline created specifically to respond to tribal victims.

The hotline, four years in the making, will be staffed either by tribal women or specially trained advocates “who can answer calls from Native women to help them … problem-solve around these issues,” said Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the national hotline.

“I think our commitment from the hotline side just accelerated so quickly because of the number of stories, heartbreak, hardship, the lack of hope that many women were feeling,” Ray-Jones said about the first meeting with Native leaders. “(It) just became crystal clear to us that we need to do something.”

With the help of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, the tribal hotline will offer crisis intervention, safety planning assessments and referrals to local resources tailored to Native women.

Leanne Guy, executive director of the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition, said it was important to have a tribal-specific hotline where people answering the phone understand cultural nuances, how tribal governments function and what it’s like living on a reservation where police may be understaffed, underfunded and serving a large, rural area.

“Oftentimes, whether it be language barriers or cultural sensitivity issues, folks aren’t as comfortable calling the national hotline as they would be a Native hotline,” Guy said.

“It’s the same as going into a non-Native program for services. There’s just a connection that you look for but you won’t find if it’s a non-Native program,” she said.

Guy said people who aren’t familiar with tribes or living on reservations may make the mistake of lumping them all together.

“Each tribe has their own language and culture and government, infrastructure,” Guy said. “They’ve got their own ways of doing things and each has their own capacity to respond to domestic violence. Some tribes are in a better place and some tribes are trying to figure it out.”

Jessye Johnson, spokeswoman for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, said women who call her coalition’s hotline would be referred to a culturally specific resource if the woman identifies herself with a tribe. Currently, Johnson said, her coalition often reaches out to the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition for guidance.

“Mainstream programs in big, urban areas don’t have those cultural pieces that are really important,” Johnson said. “Their needs are met more holistically in those tribal-specific programs.”

There is a definite need. The National Congress of American Indians reported that 34 percent of Native women will experience rape in their lifetimes and 39 percent will be victims of domestic violence. The Justice Department says the rate of domestic violence against Native women is 2.5 times the national average.

Ray-Jones said the National Domestic Violence Hotline is also expanding its digital presence so victims can access services online and through social media.

“I just got goose bumps right now thinking about it,” Ray-Jones said about the start of the tribal hotline. “You work so hard to get the resources in place to launch a critical service.”