When women from the six Tewa-speaking pueblos of northern New Mexico decided to do something about the rape and sexual violence in their communities, they turned to their cultural roots of peace and respect for the earth. “Violence against women is not distinct from that against the poor or Mother Earth,” says Kathy Sanchez, director of Tewa Women United, an activist group in the area. “Within the Native perspective everything is connected.”
To honor that heritage, Tewa Women United has created one of the first antiviolence programs in North America, headed by the Native American women it serves. They call their initiative V.O.I.C.E.S. (Valuing Our Integrity with Courage, Empowerment and Support). Rather than adopting what it calls a Euro-American model of healing that relies on timed therapy sessions and jails far from the community, V.O.I.C.E.S. calls on its own traditions. “Native Americans are wary of outside agencies from the white world,” says Katia Delgado, an indigenous Peruvian woman and therapist for V.O.I.C.E.S. “Memories of being betrayed, enslaved, and beaten for speaking their own language lurk beneath the surface. So, when the perpetrator of a sexual crime is sent to prison outside of the pueblo, breaking up the family, it awakens old ghosts for everyone.”
Volunteers with V.O.I.C.E.S. encourage healing by working closely with sexual assault victims, the victims’ families, and the communities to make offenses publicly known despite resistance from mostly male tribal councils. The group encourages the entire pueblo to take responsibility for the violence and come together for peace. V.O.I.C.E.S. finds shelter for women and their children among the sprawling networks of extended families. They are also working to establish halfway houses for abusers on the pueblo grounds. Volunteers help run a hotline, offer culturally sensitive counseling, and provide medical help and emergency intervention for women in distress. To serve the growing number of women seeking help, V.O.I.C.E.S. has had to lean on services from outside the community. But first, Tewa volunteers provide cross-cultural training for the tightly supervised network of outside medical and legal agencies they use.
To help women and children recoup their inner strength, V.O.I.C.E.S. trains them in the spiritual rituals of their ancestors. “Every morning, we present ourselves to the sun, which has many healing powers, especially when its rays are at a certain angle,” says Sanchez. The group also leads prayers of thanks that recognize the people, animals, plant life, wind, and water that sustain them. “We make women feel less alone by helping them name three support systems in their lives,” says Sanchez. “Once you claim these connections, you recognize the sacred energy of the universe and gain strength from it to make choices that empower you.”