Lorena Halwood

(WOMENSENEWS)–The ancient Blessingway ceremony led by a medicine man on the Navajo Reservation takes place outside in the evening and goes into the middle of the night. It emphasizes everything that is good as opposed to evil. A special healing smoke that can release bodily tension fills the air.

For Mary, a pseudonym to protect her identity, the ritual is a way to help let go of 20 years of an abusive marriage. She says her husband hit her with a 2-by-4, knocked out her teeth and laughed when he told her that she could commit suicide for all he cared.

She lives in Chinle, a town of about 6,000 in northeastern Arizona near the geographic heart of the Navajo Nation. The town has one stoplight, one grocery store, a small police department and no established shelter for domestic violence victims and families.

But it does have one place where women can go for aid and be heard, Ama Doo Alchini Bighan, a 17-year-old nonprofit organization funded by grants, donations and Arizona state that provides domestic violence services to the Chinle area on the Navajo Reservation and runs a safe-house network to provide temporary shelter.

Mary says ADABI–"Home for Women and Children" in Navajo–saved her life. She tried overdosing and afterwards sought refuge there. It’s been a place to talk and get help with her suicidal feelings.

ADABI leases four attached modular buildings that house crisis, intervention and prevention programs, support groups and counselors. It also has a sweat lodge where women can go to be purified of emotions by sweating and praying.

Sgt. Daren Simeona, a domestic violence prevention instructor at the Navajo Police Academy in Toyei, Ariz., says domestic violence is escalating. The Navajo Nation’s Department of Law Enforcement recorded about 2,500 cases in the second quarter of 2006.

The American Indian Health Council reports that American Indian women experience the highest rate of violence of any group in this country. Homicide is the third leading cause of death. Over 75 percent of Native American women murdered were killed by a family member or an acquaintance.

‘A Lack of Everything’

Because of a "lack of everything" in the Navajo Nation, the incidence rate is twice the national average, says Simeona, who calls it an epidemic. "There’s a lack of police, resources, shelters and jobs. The reservation is not getting the quality of help that it needs to restore family values."

Simeona estimates that about 300 police officers try to cover an area the size of West Virginia. They can’t handle a problem he believes is fueled by rising abuse of drugs and alcohol and a tendency by police to downplay complaints and treat them as matters for family to resolve on their own.

The tribe of over 180,000 people–who are known as the Dine, the Navajo word for "people"–lives on a 26,000-square-mile tract of land and has only two domestic violence shelters that provide beds.

The Tohdenasshai Women’s Shelter, about 60 miles northwest of Chinle in Kayenta, Ariz., can house up to six families in its double-wide trailer. If more beds are needed, women are referred to shelters off the reservation.

In the neighboring state of New Mexico, the Shiprock Home for Women and Children is able to shelter eight families in its temporary mobile trailer until their new facility opens next year. Women travel over 100 miles there to flee abusers. Due to the expanse of the reservation’s 16 million acres, it is difficult for victims of domestic violence to find help.

Patching Over a Gap

ADABI tries to patch things over for nearby women.

"Women are very isolated with no transportation and in many cases no phone," says Leanne Guy, former director of ADABI. "Police are severely understaffed and there are times when we don’t know what’s going on until it’s over."

ADABI began in the house of a former board president when a group of volunteers got together because of an increase in family violence in the community in 1989.

Most of ADABI’s clients are Navajo women and children. It is the only community-based 24-hour domestic violence intervention and prevention program serving an area of more than 3,200 square miles.

In 2005, ADABI assisted 337 women and 797 children. Many suffered from some sort of verbal, physical or sexual abuse. For the first nine months of this year, 356 females and 886 children have been helped. Thirty victims and 59 children stayed in safe homes. In the early years of ADABI, there were seldom inquiries for assistance for several months at a time; now there can be calls every night.

To help answer the increasing need for services, ADABI staff and volunteers respond around the clock. Too small to provide its own beds or shelter, the organization finds places elsewhere, if it can; it uses motels, churches, treatment centers, couches and their safe-home network of four homes in the community.

Volunteers who want to become part of the hosting network are interviewed to make certain they can provide the necessary services.

Due to the need for strict confidentiality and the lack of people who have extra space and beds, it’s sometimes impossible to find enough safe homes. Some people take in two or three people for a night or two, for up to $25 per night.

Band-Aid Approach

It’s a band-aid approach until victims can find a more permanent solution.

"Safe homes are temporary and more than a handful of women return to their situation," says Lorena Halwood, the domestic violence program coodinator at ADABI. "We don’t see them again until they are abused. I see daughters of women I saw here 10 years ago as the cycle continues."

Simeona says Navajo police investigating domestic violence sometimes have treated it as a nuisance instead of a crime. He thinks thousands of women may have been hurt by the department’s misunderstanding and neglect of the issue. He includes himself as formerly part of the problem and says police can come to better grips with the situation by visiting facilities like ADABI and asking people like Halwood what they can do to help.

"I was shocked when they wanted me to come to the academy and give them advice," Halwood says. "It’s made a big difference. Some of the officers hadn’t been retrained for 15 years. The tradition was to bring grandpa into the home and talk things over."

At the insistence of Navajo leaders and with Simeona’s assistance, the Navajo Police Academy instituted a new domestic violence prevention training program in April. Officers are now being trained on proper investigative techniques.

Victims like Mary meet with police to describe what they have undergone and recommend how the police can best deal with victims and perpetrators. To date over 300 students from the Department of Public Safety, mainly officers, have gone through the program.

"I tell them don’t let the abuser go," Mary says emphatically. "When you leave, they’ll be back. If there were a shelter, more women would come in. They are afraid and have no place to go. I tell my friends to make up their minds and don’t be mistreated, think about the time he used to abuse you and leave."

Pamela Burke is a writer and producer in Los Angeles.

This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.

For more information:

Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, Domestic Violence Resources:

Ama Doo Alchini Bighan, Inc. (ADABI):

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