Medicine Wheel

Confronted by the same situation a few months ago, the same officer refused to leave. Explaining, “I need to talk to everyone else in the house,” he pushed in over the man’s protest and saw children crouched on the living room floor. “I wouldn’t have seen them before,” he says. “I had to be taught to look.” Entering the bedroom, he saw a huddled figure so bloody and bruised it barely looked human. Then she lifted her head. It was a woman whose husband had been beating her for two days. “Thank God,” she choked out. “You’re the angel I’ve been praying for.”

Thanks to a strikingly original social program, more and more women on the Pine Ridge reservation have had their prayers for deliverance from abuse answered. Cangleska, Inc., a 13-year-old violence prevention and treatment program founded by and for Oglala Sioux Indians in southwestern South Dakota, has achieved dramatic results in reducing domestic violence. The program has incorporated traditional culture and the strengths of the Native American community to not only stop abusers, but to rehabilitate them so they can rejoin their families and community. In so doing, Cangleska has earned recognition as one of the most innovative government programs in the country, winning, most recently, an Innovations in Government award from the Ford Foundation and Harvard University.

In the traditional culture of the Oglala Sioux (also called Lakota), women were highly honored. Domestic violence was considered a crime against the tribe. Men who beat their wives and children were held to be unfit to lead their families. But when soldiers and settlers arrived west in the 1800s, the tragic saga of the Native American began. Despite valiant struggles, the descendants of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Black Elk now live on bleak stretches of dusty land in the center of the United States, intimately familiar with alcoholism and violence.

Domestic violence had become just another fixture in Pine Ridge’s landscape of despair. The average annual income is $3,400. The unemployment rate is 84 percent. Over 70 percent of Lakota adults are alcoholics. A Department of Justice report released in February found that Native Americans are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime than any other group. They have the highest suicide rates in the nation. They are twice as likely as any other ethnic group to be arrested for an alcohol-related offense, and four times more likely to spend time in jail. Most troubling of all, Native American women are at the bottom of the lowest trough: The Justice Department report found that the level of violent crime experienced by American Indian women is nearly 50 percent higher than that reported by black males.

On Pine Ridge, domestic violence, complicated and augmented by all the other problems, finally grew too widespread to ignore. In 1987 tribal elders convened a meeting to address the issue. One after another, women stood up to describe the terror of being battered: of never knowing when the explosion would come, of nights spent sleeping with their children in abandoned cars, or begging policemen to put them in jail so their husbands couldn’t beat them that night.

As a result of that meeting, the tribe adopted a Spousal Abuse Code, one of the strictest in the nation, which made it illegal to assault an intimate partner and mandated arrest with no bond and automatic sentencing for offenders. The tide began to turn.

Cangleska (chan-GLAY-shka) was founded shortly after that 1987 meeting by Marlin Mousseau, a respected member of the tribe and a former batterer, and Karen Artichoker, the current director. George Twist, a former tribal police officer, rounds out the organization’s leadership. Besides providing shelter, intervention, and legal aid for battered women, Cangleska also focuses on re-training batterers to act out anger in other ways. The aim is to rehabilitate abusers, not just stop them for the moment.

Cangleska means “medicine wheel” in the Lakota language: a sacred object that reflects the looker’s true self back at him. By introducing Native American ideas of spirituality and tribal togetherness, Mousseau, who heads the men’s program, says he tries to get abusive men to see themselves as they are: scared, insecure, jealous, and controlling. Only then can there be progress. “You have to look in the mirror to change,” he says. When the program started out, many opposed it. Tribal members objected to the idea that the police and courts were going to get involved in private family matters. But the program pushed the traditional collective responsibility of the Lakota. “Actually,” says Artichoker, “it’s a western concept that the family is private and what happens behind closed doors is off limits.”

Today, the program has a staff of 15—many of them former abusers or victims—and consults to over 550 Native American tribes on combating domestic violence. A Cangleska shelter, opened in 1997, has helped over 700 women and children. In the dust of the reservation, Cangleska is breaking ground for a new residence to house women who have left abusive homes. It offers hope and affirmation for people who have traditionally had very little of either.

It’s hard for most Americans to conceive of what life is like on an Indian reservation in the poorest county in America. Sarah Buel, director of University of Texas School of Law’s Domestic Violence Clinic, was the site visitor to Pine Ridge for the Ford/Harvard Innovations in Government Committee. “It was just mind-boggling the extent of the poverty there,” she says. “It’s isolated—over two hours from Rapid City—and once you hit the reservation it’s obvious immediately that you’re someplace neglected. The paved road stops, and turns into bumpy, hilly dirt roads, most of them impassable in winter. There are junked-up cars all over the place. It’s just such horrendous, abject poverty and unemployment.” As Artichoker says, “Even though we call ourselves a sovereign nation, we’re economically dependent.”

Buel says most people can’t even afford the basics. “There’s an extraordinary housing shortage,” she says. “And nobody has the money to get even a down payment for a trailer. Say it’s $400—that’s prohibitive. So there are rundown, beat-up houses everywhere. The HUD housing is of substandard quality and clustered close together even though there’s plenty of land. All the people have been pushing for them to be built farther apart because so many studies show that conflict worsens in tight quarters. But the Federal agencies—HUD, FEMA, Bureau of Indian Affairs—decided it would be cheaper this way. All the sewage systems would be close.”

“That’s just another example,” Buel adds, “of the many conflicts that arise between Lakota tradition and what the people want and the Feds. That’s why it’s so important with Cangleska that it was started and is run by people there.”

Domestic violence, once punishable by death and banishment among the Oglala Sioux, is currently an endemic problem at Pine Ridge. Norma Rendon, a Cangleska staff member, says, “If I had 10 girlfriends in a room together, probably all 10 are or have been abused by their husbands.” She reconsiders, then adds, “Actually, I have one friend whose husband doesn’t beat her. But her first husband did.”

Both of Norma’s husbands beat her; the second threw her down the stairs when she was pregnant with her fifth child. “He just had so much anger,” she says. “There wasn’t really a pattern. No matter what I did, he would get mad. The best thing I could do was be quiet. At least if I was quiet I could try to find a way to get away.”

She stayed with him longer than she should have, Norma says, because she wanted her kids to be raised by both parents. “And I loved him,” she says quietly. “I still love him.” She explains the paradoxical appeal: “If you’ve been abandoned as a child, and then here’s this man who, because he’s such a big bully, will protect you from anything, you’ll go back.” But in the end she left, because “I wanted a better life for my children than what I had for myself.”

A recent Cangleska client wanted the same thing—yet leaving abusive spouses is not only difficult but sometimes life-threatening. Rendon says this woman was “so afraid that she went to three different states. I couldn’t get her to come into the shelter. She was probably running for about a week.” The woman was abjectly terrified of her husband. “He’ll find me,” she sobbed. “He’ll come and kill all of us. He’ll kill you, and everybody there.”

When she finally came in, her bruises were so bad they hadn’t faded after seven days. “There were huge knots on the childrens’ heads,” Rendon says. “Bruises all over their bodies, but no broken bones. He was pretty intelligent—most of their contusions were places people couldn’t see them.”

Marlin Mousseau knows what it’s like to make a woman that scared. And he knows exactly how to talk to abusive husbands because he used to be one. Born and raised on the reservation, he met his wife, an Oneida from Wisconsin, in college. They married when he was 22. Problems started quickly. “I was real jealous,” he says. “That was my biggest problem, jealousy of other men. I got so’s I’d be jealous of Tom Selleck when she watched Magnum P.I.'”

Mousseau says the punches were nothing compared to the emotional, spiritual, even cultural punishment he gave his wife. “I’d tell her her tribe was no good,” he says. “Or I’d threaten to take the kids away, saying You’re on my reservation and I know the judges.’ Or I’d say If you leave me bad things will happen to you because I’m a [sacred] pipe carrier.'” After he knocked her tooth out while she was pregnant, she moved out and got a restraining order to keep him away. Suddenly alone, Mousseau says he “turned to our spiritual leaders and teachings that I wasn’t ready to listen to before.” He spent two days praying and experienced an epiphany: “I was put in her place, and experienced the fear and feelings of being a victim.” He determined to turn his life around. Four months later, he and his wife were reconciled. This August they celebrated their 22nd wedding anniversary.

Cangleska is a culturally-based social service program funded by the federal government. Lest we lose sight of the fact that sometimes government programs do actually work, and our tax dollars can be used to make life safer, cleaner, better, or more efficient, there’s the Innovations in Government Program. Founded in 1986 and run by the Ford Foundation, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the Council for Excellence in Government, the Innovations program receives some 1,600 applications a year: visiting nurse programs, urban renewal programs, welfare reform programs, programs that give disabled people low-interest loans to buy cars. The variety and scope of the programs, from all corners of the country, is tremendous and heartening. “We want to recognize when government is efficient, smart, or amazing,” says Elaine Kamarck, the program’s director.

The Innovations staff of four spends almost a full year narrowing the field to 100 candidates, which are farmed out to committees of policy experts who will whittle the list down to 25 semifinalists evaluated by a 15-member panel loaded with politicians and policy experts. Finally, representatives of the 25 semifinalists are flown to Washington, where they present their own merits rally-clock style before the assembled committee.

There’s a lot at stake. The $100,000 prize for each of the 10 winners could make a small program. (The Council of Excellence in Government, the third partner in the program, administers the grant money and tracks its use; it’s intended for programs to expand existing operations and encourage others to reproduce their success.) And then there’s the recognition: After Cangleska was honored, Mousseau says many people on the reservation told him how proud they were. “We represented the whole Lakota nation by accepting that award,” he says gravely.

Respected men on the reservation are active participants. “If you’re in George [Twist’s] program and you beat up your wife again, he’ll send you up the mountain for a three-day fast and the men in the town make sure you stay up there,” says Buel. “Cangleska is a phenomenal example of having men in the community saying we are not going to allow this.'” The police officer quoted in the opening paragraph agrees: “I probably couldn’t have heard it from a woman,” he says about the violence training. “I needed someone like George to say, If we’re men on this reservation we have to stop this.'”

The tribal council and courts—the authorities on the reservation—support the program. “It’s very powerful when you have a court saying, You will not harm this woman,'” says Artichoker. Cangleska has also convinced the community that domestic violence is not part of the Lakota tradition, and therefore unacceptable. But getting that respect took 13 years. “We’ve been accused of moving all the women off the reservation,” Artichoker says. (Cangleska routinely helps women go to other states to find jobs.) “I told them they should do a better job of making it safe for women to stay.”

The tribal police have been retrained. Cangleska has taught over 100 police officers how to approach a domestic conflict situation and take charge. “We’re finding that police officers are taking their own journey,” says Artichoker. “It’s gratifying for law enforcement to see the results of counseling, instead of making the same arrests over and over.” Now, says Buel, the reservation’s nine police substations really “enforce the law. If they think a crime has been committed, they’ll arrest now, which is what every victim is entitled to.”

Cangleska has redefined existing domestic violence laws and pushed for tough new ones. The tribe’s Spousal Abuse Code came on the heels of the federal Violence Against Women Act. The tribe’s probation office now enforces both, to make sure that batterers either get counseling or go to jail. The tribe’s law is actually tougher than the federal one: Under the Spouse Abuse Act, it is illegal not only to cause physical harm, but to threaten it as well.

Cangleska has surmounted all the immediate barriers that stop women on the reservation from getting help, including transportation, day care, legal help and job training. “The reservation is so big and so isolated that women with no car and no money often give up,” says Buel. “They feel like they can’t escape.” Cangleska organizes carpools to other cities for court appearances, school or job training. They watch the kids while women work or look for jobs. The full-time staff attorney gets restraining orders, files for divorce, and helps victims keep custody of their children, the biggest worry for most divorcing mothers. And a full range of programs including literacy, tribal college and even acupuncture classes help women learn salable skills and recover from the stress of abuse.

Cangleska’s resolve and originality impressed everyone on the Innovations selection committee. Buel raves about Artichoker, Mousseau, and Twist: “They’re such amazing, devoted, committed people. You spend any time in their presence and you are just blown away,” she says. “These guys have tackled every obstacle. They just didn’t give up. They created something that met all of their needs.”

David Gergen, chair of the selection committee, praises the program for using federal money combined with local initiative to better the lot of the Oglala Sioux. “We were all impressed with the fact that this was a huge departure for an Indian tribe,” he says. “This is a self-help program. The whole notion that you could change something so fundamental as internal family dynamics in an entrenched culture, how men regarded women, was very inspirational.”

But for all their progress, Mousseau knows there is a very long way to go. “A lot of us realize that [we won’t see] healthy and normal ways among our people in our lifetime,” he says. He pauses, then adds, “But we have to think about the seventh generation.” Still, the program now consults to 500 other Indian reservations and the ideas are spreading. In the tortured history between the federal government and the Native American tribes, this might be the first program started for and by Indians which uses federal and private funds to help them succeed.

Still, Artichoker agrees that it’s not easy. “It’ll take all of our values as Native people to keep us strong, keep moving forward,” she says. “But if I didn’t think it would work, I wouldn’t be here, raising my children. We have to teach people that this is not who we are as Lakota people. This is not how the Creator intended us to be with each other.”

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