Empowerment through Self-Defense

Local groups host self-defense class for Native women and trans people in wake of IAIA #metoo

In the past few years, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women campaign (MMIW) has brought the violence Native women face from often non-Native perpetrators to national attention. In 2018 the US Senate declared May 5 as a national day of awareness for the issue.

On that date this year, Three Sisters Collective, a grassroots organization focused on empowering Indigenous women in Santa Fe, partnered with the Institute of American Indian Arts and other groups to host several events to honor the memories of women who have disappeared and to acknowledge progress in the push against the violence.

Then, just three days later, a student at IAIA posted a Facebook comment accusing a faculty member of sexual assault, and the campus erupted in a blaze of #metoo allegations against other faculty members and the way the school dealt with past issues of sexual misconduct. The ordeal exposed yet another example of the violence Indigenous women experience not only at the hands of outsiders, but within their own communities as well.

For Christina M Castro (Jemez/Taos/Chicana), a co-founder of the Three Sisters Collective, the sense of betrayal that took place in the days following was gut-wrenching. The perpetrators were some of the very same faculty who had helped organize the May 5 events to bring awareness to violence against Native women. They were friends, friends of friends and colleagues. Three Sisters posted a statement on its Facebook page condemning the behavior, but the question that continues to eat at her, says Castro, is: What now?

"If you think about MMIW, you think of all the extractive industries coming into our communities and women disappearing, the perpetrator who is the man camp worker preying on our women," she says. "This violence towards our communities is very real and very serious. But we also need to recognize the reality that the day-to-day violence we see in our community is at the hands of our own people. How do we start to think about restorative justice in our communities and how do we as women learn to protect ourselves and help each other address this kind of violence in our community, which is a by-product of the system and the culture of violence that we live in? There are no easy answers."

But there are first steps, and Three Sisters plans to organize several events over the coming weeks and months they hope will begin to lead in the right direction.

To start, the collective has partnered with Resolve, a Santa Fe nonprofit that teaches comprehensive violence prevention, to host a self-defense workshop on June 8 for Native Women and transgender people ages 13 and older, taught by Resolve instructor Nicole Lovato, herself an Indigenous woman from Santo Domingo Pueblo.

The class will teach participants physical and psychological skills for dealing with perpetrators who are strangers and perpetrators who come from one's community, maybe even someone close to the victim. Violence prevention begins with learning how to set and hold personal boundaries and how to use de-escalation tactics in tense situations, says Lovato. But for circumstances where violence cannot be prevented, participants will come away with physical skills for self-defense.

Sitting in the Resolve office with Castro and Resolve Executive Director Alena Schaim, Lovato says she hopes creating a safe space for Native women and trans people to learn these skills within the context of their own community will encourage participants to feel more comfortable supporting one another and sharing their experiences.

At its heart, the workshop aims to foster community empowerment and individual self-determination. To do this effectively, Schaim says Resolve must be transparent about the realities of violence and how it affects specific communities. These, she says, include the gendered and racial biases women and trans people face in the courtroom, with police and with bystanders.

Resolve does not sugarcoat difficult truths.

For instance: Women of color and trans people are disproportionately incarcerated for striking an attacker in self-defense. Schaim says, "I think it's really significant that when we teach classes, that we are not pretending. Instead, we are directly addressing the reality and teaching people how to navigate those things."

That includes teaching participants how to control their own adrenaline levels and think clearly in high-stress moments of violence, how to deliver the minimum amount of force needed to stop an attacker when striking in defense, and how respond to an assault by using verbal strategies to call attention to what is happening, thereby "creating a whole setting for bystanders to understand and to be able to testify in your favor if need be," says Schaim, a setting that makes the victim more likely to be believed in family, community and legal scenarios.

Castro says the workshop is about reclaiming space and autonomy.

Lovato agrees.

"It's an act of taking your power back," she says, "an act of really stepping into that power and saying that having a fighting spirit has to be at the root of knowing or thinking that you have a right to defend yourself, you are worthy of self-defense. Having experienced violence or having experienced any kind of oppression puts a pressure on people's feelings of worthiness. I think that our role here is to really let people shine, help them step into that power."

Empowerment Self-Defense Class

9:30 am-2 pm Saturday June 8. Free. Santa Fe Indian Center, 1420 Cerrillos Road. To reserve a space contact Caren Gala: 660-4210 or sfindiancenter@gmail.com.

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