Growing up as a Native American citizen of the Rincon, Band of Luiseno Indians—and for the majority of my life living on my reservation—I have witnessed instances of violence.
My ancestral tribal land is located in the northern parts of San Diego County, which stretches from Palomar Mountain and follows the San Luis Rey River through the valleys to the ocean, where it includes what is now U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
While I was blessed to have grown up in a home where there was not any violence or substance abuse, I still had to witness family and tribal community members struggling with addiction and violence.
Partially because of the systemic injustice and discrimination we have faced over the past century, American Indians and Alaskan Natives are at greater risk of being victims of violence then any other race. Colonization plays a major role in why these disparities exist. For more than 200 years, the United States government has been systematically trying to assimilate tribal people. Forced relocations, boarding schools and various state and federal rulings have all contributed to the injustice.
In California, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians and Public Law 280 contributed to this discrimination. The state “carried on a series of privatized wars of extermination against the Native American population” and “California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, openly called for the extermination of Indian tribes,” the website Native American Roots states.
All these factors are just a small account of what contributes to the high rates of violence Native victims experience.
American Indian women residing on reservations suffer domestic violence and physical assault at rates far exceeding women of other ethnicities and locations, according to the nonprofit Futures Without Violence. “A 2004 Department of Justice report estimates these assault rates to be as much as 50 percent higher than the next most victimized demographic,” according to the group.
American Indians are two and a half times more likely to experience sexual-assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Indian women reports having been raped during her lifetime, according to figures cited by the U.S. Department of Justice.
When I first started as an advocate, I realized there was a great need to have an agency that went beyond service providers who assist Native victims. We needed something that carried the voices of the grassroots, provided technical assistance to tribal programs, and integrated the work being done on tribal, state and national levels.
The reauthorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act in 2005 required the Department of Justice to implement Tribal Coalitions programs throughout the country to aid Native victims.
Using these resources, in 2005, I helped found The Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition to help improve responses to victims.
The coalition works to raise awareness, educate and to provide assistance to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sex trafficking. We are especially sensitive to the unique cultural barriers that Native American women face when they seek help.
The coalition originally served the nine reservations located in the northern portion of San Diego County. Over the years, the service area of the coalition has expanded throughout five counties in Southern California: San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Inyo and Santa Barbara counties.
Our organization is now the only tribal coalition in California that assists tribes throughout the state who request assistance with handling any of the crimes under the Violence Against Women Act. We work closely with our sister tribal coalitions to provide inter-tribal coalition work. We also work with the statewide nonprofit, the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, where I sit on the board of directors.
When I was working as an advocate, there were many instances where our Native victims would go to a non-Native shelter only to leave and go back to their abuser because they were not adjusting to life in the shelter and did not have contact with their tribal community. They often said that they returned because the outside shelters had no culturally specific outreach or because they were victimized by others in the shelter, including staff.
In 2014, the Strong Hearted Coalition founded the Kiicha, which means “house” in the Luiseno language and became the first Native American shelter for victims in Southern California. The funding for Kiicha comes out of a tribal allocation of the federal Family Violence Prevention Services Act. By becoming a consortium of tribes, we are able to pool our various funds and operate the shelter.
Through another grant, we also help victims with legal assistance, including obtaining restraining orders, child custody and divorce. Our attorneys are considered a mobile unit and go to various locations such as the Indian Health clinics and the Southern California Inter-Tribal Court. Other grant funding pays for youth programs, such as teen talking circles and coming-of-age gatherings.
But there is still more to be done. Many Native victims of violence still don’t have a place to turn when they need help. Many victims we see lack transportation, struggle to find housing on their tribal land and find it difficult to get confidential help.
We have a constant need for flexible funding that can accommodate what is in the best interest of the victims and to keep them safe. This flexibility can be in the form of hotel vouchers or cash to pay rent for a victim, for example. We need to have funding to help the whole family heal.
We need to do more for our Native people, who for too long have been victims of injustice and discrimination.
Germaine Omish-Lucero is a founder of the Strong Hearted Women’s Coalition, the only coalition serving Native American victims of violence in California, and serves on the board of directors of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.