Dallas Goldtooth, campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network and outspoken critic of toxic masculinity, describes a terrible truth under which many women must live in their working lives.
"Women’s safety and health is dependent on them knowing men better than men know themselves," he said. "They have to know how men think, what motivates them and determine if certain men pose dangers to their well-being. Most men aren’t required to do this; they only have to know themselves.”
The process of colonization and forced acculturation has stripped men of color of agency and power over their own lives, according to Goldtooth.
“As unhealthy as it is, they seek to regain that control through the domination of women,” he said.
Toxic masculinity victimizes both men and women, according to Goldtooth.
“Toxic masculinity is defined by men’s inability to process anger, rage and fear. In this worldview, the only response is dysfunction and self-destruction,” he said.
Goldtooth says mainstream society doesn’t challenge men to ask themselves to whom they are accountable or to be aware of how they are contributing to the suffering and inconvenience to others.
“It’s time for us to step up and hold ourselves accountable and help heal our communities; men who are known to harass women should be asked to leave ceremonies. They are not welcome because their presence doesn’t create a space of safety or healing,” he said.
Historically, harassment and violence towards women were not part of traditional Native cultures, according to Lindsay Compton, executive director of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society.
Lakota men’s and women’s societies taught and guided appropriate behavior between men and women according to Compton of the Sicangu Lakota tribe.
“The old ways were strict and guided all aspects of our lives. A man who mistreated women risked losing his status in the community and value as a man. He would be prohibited from participating in ceremonies or going on war parties,” Compton said.
Although the traditional ways are strict, they are balanced with compassion. “A perpetrator would be given chances to change his behavior but if he persisted, he might be banished,” she said.
Women also held leadership roles in tribal communities. “Our roles as matriarchs included acting as disciplinarians and determining accountability for perpetrators,” Compton said
The ongoing fallout from settler colonialism and the patriarchal federal relationship with Indian Country disrupted those social systems, according to Compton.
“Our ways have been decimated by poverty and government assimilation tactics; we have few models of what healthy relationships look like,” she said.
Violence against Native women is perpetuated by colonial influenced institutions and organizations both in and outside of Indian Country, according to Compton.
“Violence will continue unless we hold leadership accountable; that is our role as matriarchs,” Compton said.
“We are left with only the scattered pieces of traditional matriarchal roles but we’re trying to put them all together to gather strength to step up and speak out,” she added.
What does traditional accountability look like in the modern world?
“We (Native women advocates) are working to create a comprehensive plan. I envision it as being strict but balanced with compassion. For instance, rather than physically banish perpetrators, we could banish them from using tribal resources,” Compton said.
But banishment may not be the only answer. “My mom told me that if we banish all the creepy men, there would hardly be any men left. We need to be more creative and inventive in how we hold them accountable,” Goldtooth said.
Sarah Deer is a longtime activist for the rights of indigenous women. Deer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2014 in recognition for her work on the Violence Against Women Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act. She currently holds a joint appointment at the University of Kansas with the School of Public Affairs and Administration and the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.,
She worries that allowing perpetrators to claim victimization by colonization to explain bad behavior won’t allow for adequate iterations between abuses of power.
“You can’t ever be excused from behavior that hurts women,” Deer said.
Wica Agli, Bringing Back Men is an example of a modern version of a traditional Lakota men’s society. Located on a horse ranch on the Rosebud reservation, Wica Agli provides a sentencing alternative for men charged with domestic violence. Lakota people have a traditional relationship with horses and view them as relatives. Utilizing that tradition, Wica Agli provides horse therapy to help men reconnect with Lakota teachings about healthy masculinity and instill a sense of accountability and civility to their families and community.
“We are holding perpetrators accountable and working to combat the hush hush nature of the political system here on the reservation,” said Greg Grey Cloud, ranch foreman at Wica Agli.
Grey Cloud recalled a case in which a former tribal council member convicted of domestic violence was sentenced to participate in the Wica Agli program. After the man twice failed to complete and participate, Grey Cloud terminated him from the program in accordance with the rules of Wica Agli.
The man tried to use his political influence to force his way back into the program, Grey Cloud said.
“I was called before the judge who asked why I had no compassion. ‘Where was this man’s compassion when he hit his wife in the face in front of his children,’ I asked. In the end, the judge ordered the man to serve the remainder of his sentence in jail,” Grey Cloud said.
At Wica Agli, men learn that the primary role for Native men was to create a safe environment for women and children. Trauma from long histories of forced acculturation has contributed to men’s drift away from traditional ways, according to Grey Cloud.
The impact of the MeToo movement both in and outside of Indian Country has helped women in some ways but also created confusion and a lack of consistency.
It’s still not clear why some allegations stick and why others don’t, Deer said. “We took down Bill Cosby but not Donald Trump."
The topic of healing for survivors continues to be missing from most public discussions. Indeed, a source working on finding justice for a student being sexually harassed at a tribal school noted that none of the school administrators asked about the girl’s wellbeing. The source requested anonymity for fear of retaliation against the student.
“All their efforts are centered on containing the impact of the report on the school’s leadership,” she noted.
The emotional cost of the reporting process is a painful reminder that justice alone won’t heal the trauma from assault or harassment, according to Routzen.
“We need to figure out ways to help survivors integrate their struggle for justice while promoting their own healing. At the end of the day, how much does justice help them heal from a crime that has forever changed their lives,” Routzen said.
Compton, who is also a survivor of domestic violence, agrees. “The word survivor seems static. I am actively involved in surviving and healing every single day; it’s an ongoing process.”
Indeed, survival and healing are ongoing processes for Sarah Manning.
“I still can’t take a sigh of relief; each time I talk about it I re-experience the anger and powerlessness,” she said. Manning is a member of the Shoshone Paiute Tribes of Nevada and Idaho.
Some of her relationships in the small community have been fractured and strained. “People are still giving me the cold shoulder,” she said.
The impacts are far-reaching. “When I go to ceremony, I wonder if these people will be there,” she said.
The most painful elements have been the lack of concern or apology from people in authority, according to Manning.
“Not once has anyone reached out to me directly to say, ‘We take this matter seriously,’ or even acknowledge what happened,” she said.
Manning is working to find some closure. “At least he can’t harm anyone else. I feel good that I acted in alignment with my own values. I felt I was part of the problem by not saying anything.”
As tribes work to create better policies and procedures addressing sexual harassment and assault, leaders need to craft clear lines of reporting according to Routzen.
“Good policy clearly spells out action steps and consequences,” she said.
Other essential elements include a requirement for immediate response, yearly training for all staff and special training for supervisors describing mandatory action steps in response to reports.
It’s also important for people to understand that harassment and assault doesn’t just happen to women.
“Men can also be the targets of unwanted touching and offensive statements. We also need to recognize our Two Spirit workforce who often come under fire for their appearance or mannerisms,” Routzen said.
Overall, it’s critical to know that what may be fine to say at home may be off limits at work. “There are boundaries in the workplace and we need to understand that,” she said.
(Cover photo illustration by Mary Annette Pember)
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Mary Annette Pember works as an independent journalist focusing on Indian issues and culture with a special emphasis on mental health and women’s health. Winner of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, and Indian Country Today. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com.