'Where Did This Start?' In Yurok Domestic Violence Program, Understanding Generational Roots of Trauma Is Key

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 (Illustration by Anna Vignet/KQED)

Editor's Note: Due to the stigma of domestic violence in tribal communities, KQED is not using Mark and Lydia’s real names, or disclosing their location or tribal affiliation. This story contains depictions of violence and a description of racial slurs.

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s a kid, Mark often came home to a racket on the block. Then the truth would sink in. The hitting and screaming was coming from his house. His dad’s drinking made the beatings worse.

“He busted my mom’s teeth out with a rifle,” said Mark, who grew up in rural Northern California near the Oregon border. “I remember seeing this. So my first memories are of domestic violence. I was born into domestic violence.”

Mark, now in his early fifties, found out later that his father had been abused, beaten as a child. His dad was repeating what he had learned. And after Mark fell in love and began a relationship with Lydia, it wasn’t long before he carried the behavior forward again, himself. “I’m a typical Native American man,” he said. “There’s a thousand of me all around the area right now.”

Lydia, who had also experienced intergenerational violence and abuse in her family, stayed in the relationship. In time, she’d wind up facing a domestic violence charge herself, just like Mark.

A National Institute of Justice study from 2016 found that nearly 85% of American Indians and Alaska Natives had experienced violence in their lifetime, compared to a little over two-thirds for non-Hispanic whites. The rates of physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner were also markedly higher for Indigenous respondents.

At the root is trauma that dates back generations, all the way to colonizers' invasions. Mental health experts have defined that historical trauma as “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences.” In California, the forcible separation of Indigenous peoples from their lands, traditions and language are just some examples of the collective losses Native Americans have experienced.

Yet Mark and Lydia’s journey eventually brought healing – thanks in part to an approach to justice rooted in the region’s Indigenous cultural values, restorative more than punitive.

The key, Lydia said: “Going back and really finding out, ‘Where did this start?’”

Cycles of abuse

For Mark, the racial slurs began in elementary school. 'Wagon burner.' 'Dirty Indian.' He said he came home crying nearly every day. By now, his mom had left his dad and Mark had a step-father, who “taught me most of all the cultural things that I know,” he said. “He taught me how to fish. He taught me how to take care of my family.”

He also signed Mark up for boxing lessons, so he could learn to fight his bullies.

“I started busting people's noses and giving them black eyes, and they quit teasing me. That power was intoxicating,” he said. “Like a drug. It was addicting.”

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Growing up, Lydia, also contended with trauma. Her dad had abused her mom, who left with Lydia when she was a baby to move in with her own mother. But Lydia’s grandma – who herself had been beaten and molested as a child, Lydia later learned – could be cruel, locking Lydia in a back room in the dark. Denying her food.

Mom was around, Lydia said, but had different priorities: “Drugs and alcohol and partying.” By age 15, Lydia was doing drugs, too, and couch surfing. She found a boyfriend – who beat her.

“I just really wanted to be loved,” she said, “and of course when they tell you, ‘I love you,’ you really want to believe it, even if you know it’s not true."

Historical trauma

Abby Abinanti is chief justice of the Yurok Tribe, whose ancestral lands in California stretch from Humboldt to Del Norte County near the Oregon border. In 1974, she became the first Native American woman admitted to the State Bar of California.

Legends and parables make it clear that domestic violence was not tolerated in traditional Yurok culture, said Abinanti, 73. Rather, it’s a relatively recent symptom of the wound of colonization. Treating that symptom without addressing the cause gets you nowhere.

“What you have to do is look at the context and where it came from,” she said. And in Northern California, “it came from things like boarding school, massacres and the Indian Slave Act.”

The official title of the latter was “The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.” Passed at California’s first Constitutional Convention in 1850, it allowed Indigenous children – and adults – to be indentured to white settlers.

“Many were captured in the North and sold down into the middle of the state and to the South,” Abinanti said, in many cases after witnessing the murder of their parents. Many escaped and ran home. But “the problem is they were adults,” she said, “and then they got into adult relationships and had children and had no idea how to parent. And had a lot of anger, frankly.”

Profile shot of Judge Abby Abinanti standing outside
Abby Abinanti is chief justice of the Yurok Tribe, whose ancestral lands stretch through Humboldt and Del Norte counties, near the Oregon border. In 1974 she became the first Native American woman admitted to the State Bar of California. Her court’s approach to substance abuse and domestic violence is restorative more than punitive, and emphasizes cultural values as a key to healing offenders and the communities they’ve harmed. (Courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

From the mid-19th Century through the 1960s, more trauma: U.S. officials forced Native American children across the country to attend government-run boarding schools designed, as one historian explains, “to destroy that which was Indian and re-create people in the image of White America.”

“People covered up the dance sites, hid the regalia, weren’t allowed to speak the language,” said Abinanti. And with cultural amnesia came pain and self-denial.

“Language is something that comes out of what people think and believe,” she said. “And so we learned another language that didn’t think and believe what we did.”

Love and violence

By the time Lydia turned 18 she’d been on her own for a while, walking four miles each way to a fast food job. But she cherished one cultural tradition: Salmon fishing.

“And so I go down there,” she said. To the river.

“I see this beautiful girl step out of this truck,” Mark recalled. “And I thought, Oh man! There she is...I’m gonna marry that girl. But it was scary.”

“It was an automatic connection,” said Lydia. “I wanted this picture-perfect life. I knew there was a life without abuse.”

Yurok citizen Tasheena Natt fishes for salmon in the Klamath River. Salmon fishing is central to the Yurok culture and economy, and is considered a deeply spiritual practice. (Courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

Soon, they were like glue on glue. They moved in together and decided to have a baby. Lydia quit drinking, drugs, cigarettes. She gave birth to a girl, and a couple of years later, a boy. But Mark was still partying. The fights began.

About five years in, it got physical. Mark slapped Lydia during an argument in the kitchen, giving her a fat lip. She ran to a neighbor’s apartment. And to her horror, that neighbor dialed 911. Lydia didn’t trust law enforcement. She said she’d learned that from her mom and grandmother. But the wheels were in motion. Police arrested Mark, and state prosecutors offered him a deal: If he attended a 52-week batterers intervention program, the charges would be dismissed.

Mark said he “participated fully.” He learned to walk away from a fight, to take a time out. It was progress. But he’d realize later how much he still didn’t know – about himself and the roots of his violence.

“I loved her and I loved my children, and I wanted to be better,” Mark said. “But I didn’t know how to get there.”

Addiction in Indian Country

After Mark completed his program, he said he “continued to work on myself and work on myself.” But, for four more years, he “was still using meth.” In the late '90s, he managed to quit. Then came the opioid explosion, “when the doctors were basically giving away, just as many as you want.”

As a laborer with regular injuries, he had access to that open tap. They both did. Addiction followed, another symptom of historical trauma that often goes hand in hand with domestic violence.

“I would grab her by her arm and I would shake her and I’d do these things and I knew better,” Mark said.

They split up, on and off, for years. Then, in 2013, Mark quit the opioids. And they reunited, both of them clean and sober. Then, a few years later, a tragedy.

Their adult daughter died in a single-vehicle accident. Mark and Lydia sank into depression and isolation. Complicating matters, Mark said, they’d been trying to persuade their daughter to leave an abusive partner, and she was resisting. That caused a rift in their relationship with her, so “we didn’t get to spend the last years with her. It started creating this hell, this guilt.”

During a Sunday argument, Lydia scratched Mark’s nose while trying to knock a cigarette from his mouth. He called 911. This time, Lydia was arrested.

It just so happened, the couple’s adult son had a court date the next day – on a domestic violence charge. Lydia had planned to be there to support him. Instead, she showed up as another defendant in a jail jumpsuit. Charged with domestic abuse, too.

“I just can’t imagine how he must have felt,” Lydia said of her son, “to see me walk in there the next morning, on the other side.”

A path to healing

There’s growing consensus in Indian Country across the nation that the most effective way to alleviate symptoms of historical trauma like domestic violence and substance abuse is to incorporate traditional cultural values and forms of justice. Thanks to a cultural renaissance, that is possible.

Beginning in the 1970s, a new generation returned home to mine the stories of elders, revive the language, and master the wisdom needed to bring back ceremonial dances. Yurok Judge Abby Abinanti was among them, and decades later she would deepen her commitment.

In 2010, she began to expand the Yurok tribal justice system, launching a dedicated court docket to help tribal members struggling with substance abuse. To help participants repair the harm they’ve caused, so they could heal. So the community could heal. She called it Wellness Court.

“If you look at the state and federal system, they're very rights-based,” Abinanti said. “Our culture is very responsibility-based. And the responsibilities are interlocking in family and in community. So you have to assist people to meet their responsibility and come back into community in a good way.”

State court judges started releasing Yurok defendants to Abinanti’s court – and seeing results. So in 2015, she decided it was time to reach more tribal members cycling through county jail. A laborious rolling cross-tally of two separate databases revealed which Yurok members were incarcerated and why. The most common offense: domestic violence.

Walking the path

Many defendants, it turned out, were in county jail for violating probation. For not completing the state’s 52 week batterer’s intervention program – the same one Mark had attended. One barrier was financial. Even at the lowest end of the sliding scale, the state program cost $1,000. There were transportation and child care problems, too.

So Abinanti’s team decided to create their own 52-week batterers’ program, one that drew on core cultural values, and get the state to certify it as an option for state court defendants.

The prevalence of domestic violence was startling yet unsurprising. Surveys and focus groups conducted a few years earlier by the Northern California Tribal Court Coalition – a collective of tribal judges – revealed the scope of the crisis. Nearly half the women and a fifth of the men who responded said they’d been abused by a partner. Drugs and alcohol played a role about two-thirds of the time. Lack of trust in law enforcement and state court systems was common. So was a lack of awareness of services at the county level.

And participants “generally believed that these services lacked a necessary cultural component to ensure they were appropriate for a Native American population.”

The court coalition stepped up to help build the Yurok batterers program, funding the training for two facilitators. It launched in 2016, with state certification, the first of its kind in California.

The curriculum includes the basics: Take full responsibility for your actions and identify your triggers. Specific Yurok cultural practices aren’t on the agenda. Because, the only way to make the program pencil out was to open it to everyone – tribal members from throughout the region and non-tribal members, too.

Yurok tribal member Lori Nesbitt was the founding facilitator of the Yurok Batterers Intervention Program, which takes a restorative approach to healing and emphasizes the roots of intergenerational trauma. It rolled out in 2016 and is certified by the state as one of the 52-week programs available to domestic violence offenders in Northern California. Here, Nesbitt presents details of the program at a 2019 conference in Washington D.C. (Courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

Still, Lori Nesbitt, the founding facilitator, said the whole approach stems from Yurok-style justice.

“Who are they and who is their family,” she explained, “and how can we walk the path with them?”

The total cost is $30, for a book. All participants make a family tree, and conduct an interview with a community elder outside their immediate family about that generation’s experiences with domestic abuse. Participants are pressed to identify not just the family members that led them astray, but the ones who taught them cultural practices and helped root them to a sense of self – whatever their culture. Most of all, Nesbitt said she acknowledges past pain as the deep generational roots of family violence come to light.

“Once you've gone through this program, you can kind of acknowledge that, ‘Yeah some things happened. And I've repaired those. I've forgiven myself,’ ” she said. “However they choose to find that forgiveness, to me, is their pathway to healing for the rest of their life.”

Self-forgiveness

After Lydia’s arrest, state prosecutors offered her the same deal as Mark. Complete a 52-week batterers intervention program and her charge would disappear. She chose the Yurok one.

“Instead of me being the victim all the time, I learned that I was also abuser,” she said. “I learned that I did that to my children. Because I had the choice to leave.”

The turning point: understanding the context of her trauma and the chain of traumas that came before.

“I learned how to love myself,” she said. “I’m just now feeling like I don’t walk around in shame.”

The couple separated after Lydia’s arrest. But while she worked her program, Mark went to counseling and to a Christian faith-based recovery program that, he said, flooded him with “realizations and epiphanies.”

“I started learning about what PTSD was,” he said, "and what it does to your body and the fear and how it paralyzes you...just understanding my life."

They have now reunited, and both say a big part of their healing is participating in their own tribal community, giving back. Each has an idea that they believe would help tribal members affected by domestic violence.

Lydia’s is for a safe house for women and children, "but it would have to be way up in the mountains, gated, with security. It would be a home with programs for them to heal, and the children to heal too."

Mark’s idea is specifically for men.

“They go into an isolated place where they're taught their culture, where they're taught to fish, to dance, to sing, to give to your elders. And then I want them to come out as a dance crew to show that strength,” he said. “There's going to be so much power, to recover those men. I just feel that so deep.”

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This story was made possible by Yurok tribal member Laura Woods, and documentary filmmaker Luisa Conlon. This story was produced by The California Report Magazine courtesy of The Judicial Council of California, which commissioned the original version.

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