She’s 1 year old. Her grandfather was abused. Her father and mother were abused. What will her future be?
The event in the casino convention center in Reno was, if not somber, serious. The convention business has a reputation for hosting festive events. This is not one of them. In place of the sales exhibits at some conventions, at this one there is a display of blood red T-shirts, each with the first name of a murdered Nevada victim of domestic violence and an accounting of the circumstances of the murder: “Joe, 42 years old/DOD December 25 2002/Las Vegas … Joe was shot and killed, allegedly by his girlfriend, Lennie.” Convention delegates complained about the last names not being used on the shirts. Even in death, the victims are deprived of their full personhood.Each year the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence (NNADV) hosts this convention so that shelter workers, counselors, program administrators and others in the field can exchange information and learn what’s new, what’s working and what isn’t.
Looking over the program, I spot one workshop that seems out of place: “Walking the healing path.”
There is not a great deal of belief in healing or cures in this field. I once asked a program director about a husband and wife who were able to keep their family together. The wife had gone into a shelter with her children, then later reunited with her husband. They got counseling and, after several years, were still together. She told me, “In the shelter, I felt a little under pressure not to consider reuniting with him.” I asked the director of the shelter program about this and she said, “I’m really happy they were able to do it, but I can tell you that was an exception.”
The numbers bear her out. Statistically, a battered spouse who reunites is very much at risk again.
Anytime I’m at a domestic violence event, I’m reminded of what John Lennon said about the lyrics of “Getting Better:” “It is a diary form of writing. All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically—any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself, and I hit. I fought men, and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. … I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence.”
It’s a wonderful thought, but not widely credited among domestic violence workers who have seen the terrible consequences of trying to hold a family together after it is shattered. Once a batterer, always a batterer is closer to a working philosophy. Committee to Aid Abused Women director Joni Kaiser said, “Very, very rare—not one single batterer’s program has proven effective in changing behavior.”
Yet, here at the NNADV convention was a workshop that talked about healing. The domestic violence movement is certainly capable of change. For instance, it is more oriented to male victims than it once was (most of the T-shirts bear men’s names). I wondered if something new was underway in the field of healing and decided to attend the workshop.
Learning about healing
It was a family—the Tsosie/Long family from the Navajo Nation of Arizona and New Mexico. Three generations were on hand—a couple, John Tsosie and Stephanie Long, his father, Ernest Tsosie, and their daughter, Kendall, who had turned a year old the day before.
John began the program by saying, “I’m a former batterer and victim of domestic violence.”
Batterer and victim?
As jarring as it sounds to those who have never experienced it, the two often, even usually, go together. Violence is learned. Research has shown it time after time, though the public probably knows it through a less academic reference. There’s a famous 1954 Southern California newspaper column by Dorothy Law Nolte that has found its way onto posters, samplers and into pop culture around the world. Titled “Children Live What They Learn,” one line reads, “If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.”
But many of us are shielded from actually seeing this effect at work. Here in this workshop, it was possible to see it like a cutaway model.
Ernest Tsosie, father of John: “I used to do a lot of drinking, a lot of alcohol abuse. Many times I remember coming home—these were the times my family felt me, they felt the violence in me. There are many times they were afraid of me. My son, John, here is our baby of our family. He’s the youngest. When I hear him tell stories about what he went through with his mother, how he comforted her, how he said, ‘I’ll take care of you, Mom'—and he was just a little boy. That should have been me saying that to my wife—'I’ll take care of you, honey, don’t worry about anything'—but it wasn’t. It was my son, here, who was doing that for me while I was out drinking and carrying on and doing things.”
John, son of Ernie, husband of Stephanie and father of Kendall: “She [his mother] would hit me, whatever she had in her hand, it might be a pan or a skillet, something that she always hit me with when I disobeyed her. … I hit her—Stephanie, the mother of my child, the same person that I just loved and cherished, and I hit her. The instant that happened, though, it seemed like a flashback to talking with my mom. And I just didn’t know what to do because I had just become what I feared most in my life.”
Stephanie, mother of Kendall: “I’m a perpetrator and a victim of violence. … John and I started physically abusing each other probably within a year of our relationship, committing child abuse, substance, alcohol and domestic violence. … My two oldest children had experienced—especially the oldest—seeing us argue and fight and [tried to] get in the middle of both of us fighting.”
It was not possible in this situation not to notice Kendall. She crawled around the floor or nestled in her parents’ arms. She cried and fussed occasionally but mostly was a very good baby, making eyes at audience members and smiling toothlessly. She was a constant reminder of what her parents and grandfather were discussing—the way violence can be passed from generation to generation. The question was in the air: Will she be saved from it?
They are a family caught between two cultures. Long ago in some tribes, domestic violence was dealt with in a less punitive way than in the larger society. The stigma of being a batterer was a powerful tool for healing in a tribe, some of which were matriarchal.
“Our system is set up for punishment,” said UNR social psychology instructor Rebecca Thomas, a former director of Reno’s temporary protection order office. “Their system was set up to restore the situation, to make things as good as they could be. … Not punitive at all. I mean, there were some things where there were some punitive actions, such as being turned out of the tribe.” But that was for extreme cases. Generally, the situation could be restored.
“And that’s a world view, that’s not just a decision that somebody made,” Thomas said. “They didn’t see the world as a place of punishment. We see the world as a place of punishment. I mean, it just wasn’t in their concept of things to do that. … So when you look at the world in such a way that punishment is not an option, or an option in only very severe cases, then you’re not ruling by fear, basically.”
She cautions against the idea that it’s a system that could be transferred into huge population groups. “It’s never happened, so we don’t know if it would work, and … I think it would be very, very difficult to introduce into a culture that had never had that tradition because we would fundamentally have to ask people to change how they see the world and that would be almost an impossible task.” She added that non-Native American society has a need to “see justice done.” To non-Natives that means punishment. To many Native Americans, it means a peacefully functioning family.
“In the Native community, they’re trying to regain a tradition where they didn’t believe that—they didn’t believe that justice was served by hurting another person. That was more injustice. So it’s a completely different way of functioning in the world, and that’s why they’re having so much trouble reviving it on the reservations because they’ve become so westernized.”
Nevertheless, it is a tradition that still has a hold on Native Americans, who can think in terms of healing a broken family. Nor is that the only way this particular family is caught between two cultures.
Ernest Tsosie, who was abused as a child, nevertheless ends his presentations by telling his audiences, “Honor your elders.”
John Tsosie has gone on long walks around the Southwestern United States to try to publicize the problem of Native American domestic violence, a sharp breach with tribal practices. Keeping tribal problems within the tribe prevents outsiders, who use every available public relations weapon against Native Americans, from having any more ammunition than necessary.
The family has been lobbying for new tribal laws similar to those in the larger community. Currently, domestic violence is prosecuted as assault and often doesn’t draw severe sentences. The Tsosie/Long family has been pushing in the tribal council for specific laws addressing domestic violence and imposing more severe penalties.
Ties that bind
Then there is family, which has survived all the efforts by outsiders to break up tribal societies.
Former U.S. Sen. Charles Dawes, who wrote one of those laws that tried to break up the reservations, once said that what Native Americans needed was to “wear civilized clothes … cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey [and] own property.” (Writer Allison Abner sarcastically later wrote, “The drinking part was particularly constructive advice.")
Tribal religious and cultural practices were suppressed, tribes were moved around geographically, booze was introduced, adolescents were separated from their families with federal boarding schools and traditional living patterns of all kinds were upset.
Through it all, the tribes held on to a remarkably strong bond among family members that whites never quite managed to wipe out, and it was one of Native America’s great shields for a long time against domestic violence. The “Walking the Healing Path” lecturers talk about how they changed their ways when jolted by losing their families. John and Stephanie reunited after their son had a physical reaction to their separation.
But that is changing. Family is losing its punch. The outside world’s consumer products beckon.
“And then we started feeling that pressure from the outside world onto our people,” said Ernie Tsosie. “And I always say that technology in our reservation destroyed our families. A long time ago, we used to have talks with our parents and our grandparents, and it meant a lot to us to hear what they say. Now our children are involved with TV, games. Our parents don’t talk to them anymore, and I think that’s where domestic violence starts from. Native American peoples—family. That’s where we are. It’s what we believe in. It’s a strong knitted family. And I always tell my grandchildren that. You have to remember where you’re from. You have to remember who you are. You have to remember who your parents are, your grandparents.”
Stephanie Long, like her father-in-law, was born in Fort Defiance, Ariz. “Fort Defiance is a really small community,” she said. “A lot of them [kids] go out, off the reservation to bordertowns just to have fun.” The fun they often find, in one fashion or another—gangs, crime, teen pregnancy—does family connection no good. The ties that once bound now bind less.
So if tribal ways have nothing to teach larger society, if the tribes themselves are losing touch with their heritage, why the workshop?
Although Native Americans don’t have a greater domestic violence problem than most other sectors of society (and this article’s focus on this particular family could lead to such a conclusion), nevertheless it does happen on reservations and colonies, and domestic violence workers like those attending this convention need to know how to deal with tribal members. Workshops like this help.
NNADV director Sue Meuschke gave another reason: “People are always wanting that information. Hope springs eternal.”
The danger in covering an unusual workshop like the Walking the Healing Path session is that the glare of the spotlight—such as a newspaper cover story—will convert an exception into the norm in the public’s perception. Reporters want, if at all possible, to give an upbeat spin to any story and seldom take responsibility for the effect of projecting individual instances on wider situations. Society wants to see hope in any situation.
Kaiser said experience and research show that the prospects for “curing” a batterer are so bleak that the very existence of the Tsosie/Long workshop itself is remarkable: “That’d be great. I mean, power to them. I hope that happens, you know. I mean, I can’t even imagine people in a room like that even talking, so I think that’s a great sign. … And actually admitting that they did that stuff—I mean, that’s half the battle.”
But, she said, it is risky to read too much into such rarities.
“So we do want to believe that. But, you know, tell me in three years that those people that are ‘walking the healing path’ aren’t beating somebody up. And I’d be happy, trust me, because then we’d know something worked. … You know, we see generation after generation.”
The Tsosie/Long family has other family members who didn’t participate in the workshop. Another of Ernie Tsosie’s sons, Ernie Jr., is a comedian who appears as half of a comic team on reservations around the nation (www.JamesandErnie.com). He has had his own experiences with domestic violence and closes each of his shows with a message about the issue.
Domestic violence experts are hopeful about Kendall. At 1 year old, she is presumably growing up without the exposure to violence in the household that her parents and grandparents knew. That is not true of her older siblings. They are at greater risk. With luck, the new example being set for those children will overwhelm the older example. At the end of his part of the Healing Path workshop, Ernie Tsosie tells the domestic violence workers in the audience, many of whom have themselves been battered, “All of you women who have been hurt by a man, I want to apologize to you. I’m a man. I’m ashamed.”
There is a gift of good example to his children and grandchildren in those words. The breadth of its effect is unknown.