What is Abuse?

It can be difficult to talk about domestic violence in Indian Country when people ignore that it’s happening or feel uncomfortable when the subject comes up. But, our reality paints a different picture – one in which American Indians and Alaska Natives experience abuse and violence at higher rates than other groups.

It is important to emphasize that when it comes to our people: violence and abuse are not Native American traditions, and neither is ever okay.

Abuse can happen to anyone belonging to any tribe and is not limited to a specific age, class, religion, gender or sexual orientation. It happens in relationships where couples are married, living together or dating.

Violent behavior can appear at any time in a relationship, but possessive or controlling behavior often reveals itself as the relationship becomes more serious. Domestic violence and dating violence occurs when an abusive partner uses a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power over another person and control their actions. These behaviors can physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a person from acting freely or force them to behave in ways they do not want.

Types of Abuse

There are several types of abuse, including but not limited to:

Physical:

  • Pushes, slaps, punches, hits or chokes you
  • Pulls your hair
  • Hurts you with weapons
  • Hurts your children
  • Hurts your pets
  • Forces you to use drugs or alcohol

Emotional:

  • Calls you names or criticizes you
  • Isolates you from your family, friends or community
  • Accuses you of cheating and acts jealous or possessive
  • Uses weapons to threaten to hurt you, your children or family members
  • Blames you for the abuse
  • Cheats on you to intentionally hurt you
  • Traps you in your home or blocks you from leaving
  • Drives dangerously to scare you when you are in the car with them
  • Forces you to commit a crime

Spiritual/Cultural:

  • Prays against you or your family
  • Restricts you from honoring spiritual or tribal beliefs
  • Falsifies or misrepresents spiritual or tribal beliefs to get you to do something you don’t want to do
  • Challenges your tribal status/blood quantum, or puts you down for not being “Indian” enough

Sexual Violence and Reproductive Coercion:

  • Calls you hurtful sexual names
  • Hurts the sexual parts of your body
  • Continually pressures to have sex or demands sex when you don’t want to have sex
  • Tries to normalize demands for sex by saying things like, “I need it, I’m a man,”
  • Gives you drugs or alcohol to “loosen up” your inhibitions
  • Forces you to dress in a sexual way
  • Ignores your feelings about sex
  • Holds you down during sex
  • Forces or manipulates you to watch pornography or perform sexual acts
  • Intentionally tries to pass on a sexually transmitted disease to you
  • Hides or sabotages birth control
  • Threatens to leave if you do not get pregnant

Financial Abuse:

  • Gives you an allowance and tracks how much you spend
  • Refuses to give you money for necessities like food, clothes, transportation and medicine
  • Keeps your paycheck or per capita payments in their bank account and doesn’t give you access to it
  • Maxes out your credit cards or takes out loans in your name without telling you
  • Prevents you from working or tells you how much you can work
  • Pressures you to ask friends or relatives for money
  • Steals money from you or from shared accounts

Digital Abuse:

  • Constantly looks through your texts, phone messages or outgoing calls
  • Tells you who you can and can’t be friends with on Facebook and other social media sites
  • Sends threats or insulting Facebook messages or emails to you
  • Pressures you to send explicit videos of yourself
  • Humiliates you by tagging you in hurtful social media updates
  • Reveals secrets or private photos of you online
The Battering Triangle

Studies consistently indicate that women are disproportionately the victims of domestic violence, and most of those crimes are committed by men against women [1]. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that domestic violence can and does occur in two spirit and LGBTQ relationships and against men perpetrated by women. As such, it is important to stress that culturally based, confidential support and services should apply equally to all domestic violence survivors, whether female, male, LGBTQ or two spirited [2].

The Power and Control Wheel, which is a non-Native diagram used to describe what typically occurs in an abusive relationship, has been revised by Native domestic violence advocates to reflect the root causes of violence in our tribal communities. The revised tool is the Battering Triangle and it helps depict the hierarchy of violence in our communities. The triangle includes cultural and ritual abuse and is reflective of colonization and the oppression that our people continue to endure. As a tool, it informs our advocacy at StrongHearts and better informs the broader community about the effects that historical trauma has in tribal communities, specifically as it relates to domestic violence.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 187635 (Oct. 2001) [1]

Family Violence and Prevention Services Act (FVPSA) or other federally funded tribal programs may not discriminate based on age, disability, race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity and all services must be comparable for everyone seeking services. FVPSA § 10406(c)(2) and 45 CFR §1370.5. [2]

Why Do People Abuse?

Abuse is a learned behavior. Sometimes people see it within their own families or communities growing up. Other times they learn it from friends, or see it on TV or in the movies.

However, abuse is a choice, and it’s not one that anyone has to make. Many people who experience or witness abuse as young people make the decision not to use those negative and hurtful behaviors in their own adult relationships.

There are some people who think alcohol or drugs are to blame for the high rates of domestic violence and dating violence in Indian Country. It is important to recognize that while drugs or alcohol can sometimes escalate abuse, they do not cause abuse.

Domestic violence and dating violence stem from a desire to gain and maintain power and control over a partner. Abusive people think they have the right to control and restrict their partners. They may also enjoy the feeling that exerting power gives them.

No matter the reason a person chooses to abuse, violence is not our tradition, and it is never okay.

Who Can Be in an Abusive Relationship?

Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship. It can happen regardless of tribal affiliation or status, age, disability, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or economic background. If you are being abused by your partner, you may feel confused, afraid, angry and/or trapped. You may also blame yourself for what is happening. All of these emotions are normal responses to abuse. But no matter what others might say, you are never responsible for your partner’s abusive actions. Domestic violence and dating violence are not caused by alcohol or drugs, stress, anger management or provocation. Abuse is a personal choice.

Whatever the circumstances, no one ever deserves to be abused.

Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?

“Why don’t they just leave?” People who have never been abused often wonder why a person wouldn’t just leave an abusive relationship. They don’t understand that leaving can be more complicated than it seems, especially if it means leaving a tribal community to escape the abuse.

Leaving is often the most dangerous time for a victim of abuse because abuse is about power and control. When a victim leaves, they are taking control and threatening the abusive partner’s power, which could cause the abusive partner to retaliate in very destructive or dangerous ways.

Here are just a few of the common reasons why people stay in abusive relationships:

Fear: A person may be afraid of what will happen to them or their children if they decide to leave the relationship. If a person is in a LGBTQ relationship and has not yet come out to everyone, they may fear their partner will reveal this secret.

Believing Abuse is Normal: A person may not know what a healthy relationship looks like and may not realize that their relationship is unhealthy.

Embarrassment or Shame: It’s often difficult for someone to admit that they’ve been abused. They may feel they’ve done something wrong by becoming involved with an abusive partner. They may worry that their friends, family or community will judge them or talk about them behind their back.

Low Self-Esteem: When an abusive partner constantly puts someone down and blames them for the abuse, it can be easy for the victim to believe those statements and think that the abuse is their fault.

Love: So often, the victim feels love for their abusive partner. They may have children with them and want to maintain their family. Abusive people can often be charming, especially at the beginning of a relationship, and the victim may hope that their partner will go back to being that person. They may only want the violence to stop, not for the relationship to end entirely.

Cultural/Spiritual Reasons: Someone’s cultural beliefs or spirituality may influence them to stay rather than end the relationship for fear of bringing shame upon their family or to their tribal community.

Language Barriers: If a person’s first language is a Native language, it can be difficult to share the depth of their situation to others or to seek out help from domestic violence and dating violence service providers.

Lack of Money/Resources: A victim may be financially dependent on their abusive partner. Without money, access to resources or even a place to go, it can seem impossible for them to leave the relationship, especially if the person lives with their abusive partner.

Disability: When someone is physically dependent on their abusive partner, they can feel that their well-being is connected to the relationship. This dependency could heavily influence their decision to stay in an abusive relationship. 

Native Americans can also face unique barriers to leaving an abusive partner. Some of these barriers are:

  • Geographic isolation (ex. living in a rural tribal community far from town and appropriate services)
  • Lack of law enforcement (ex. in remote areas)
  • Fear of being identified when seeking help or services in one’s own small, tight-knit community
  • Fear of retaliation from the abusive partner, their family or of being shunned by their tribal community
  • Lack of trust between victims of abuse and local law enforcement authorities

Read the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s 50 Obstacles to Leaving series, adapted from Sarah M. Buel’s “50 Obstacles to Leaving, a.k.a. Why Abuse Victims Stay“, offers more insight into the reasons why someone may not leave an abusive relationship:

50 Obstacles to Leaving series: 1-1011-2021-3031-4041-50

Even with all of the barriers, all Native people have a right to safety, protection and to live lives free of abuse.