The Cancer amongst Us

Dennis Banks (right) talking with men's group at Saginaw Chippewa Tribe. Photo by Levi Rickert

Dennis Banks (right) talking with men’s group at Saginaw Chippewa Tribe. Photo by Levi Rickert

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It is like the rape of Mother Earth and compares to action that borders on cultural genocide. It is a practice that destroys families, sends people to multiple years in prison and oftentimes causes death to those who become its victims.

What is this cancer amongst us? What is this practice of brutality? It is called domestic violence.

This past fall, when one of my granddaughters was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, the investigation by the police and our family revealed she had been exposed to domestic violence at its worst. She was a beautiful young woman who bore four lovely children during this violent relationship. Emotionally hurt thousands of times, she was choked repeatedly, which resulted in her being hospitalized several times. The hospital records revealed even further traumatic incidences.

One time, my granddaughter called me and asked if she could temporarily move into my home with her children. At that time, she had had enough! I immediately opened my whole home to her and her children. So she came to live with me, but only for a short while. Within three days, her then boyfriend began calling her and begging her to come back. During one of those days, I advised her to end the relationship. Her mother also pleaded with her not to return to him. But he promised her he would never strike her again. She believed him and moved back in with him for the sake of the children.

Sadly, this ill-fated motive of trying to make it work for her children would ultimately lead to her death.

Dennis Banks, Ojibwe, Co-founded AIM in 1968.

Dennis Banks, Ojibwe, Co-founded AIM in 1968.

After my granddaughter was listed as missing in late October, the positive spirit of humanity began to spread across the country. My daughter’s circle of friends began mobilizing around her. The Internet was buzzing: “Help find…” Duane Lee “Dog” Chapman, a bounty hunter and former bail bondsman, who had a television reality show called “Dog, the Bounty Hunter,” was moved to offer a $10,000 reward for information that would lead to the safe return of my granddaughter. Search parties were organized in different areas to look for her. The tribal assistance from Leech Lake Tribal Council and the Red Lake Nation, where she is enrolled, authorized free hotel rooms and food for those who went out on search parties.

Now that she is gone from us, we are left to bury her, which we will do during the first week of the New Year.

As the investigation by the police and the autopsy of my granddaughter proceeded, I began wondering, “How deep is domestic violence in our other neighborhoods, in other states and countries?” I wondered, “How deep is this cancer amongst us?”

Now that we are left to bury her, the realization comes that this cancer amongst us did not begin with her death.

Where did it begin? Even in my early years at the boarding schools in the 1940s, I remember seeing a picture of a caveman dragging a woman by her hair to a cave. The movies of the 1930s and 1940s often showed the leading men slapping their wives, as if to say that is the way it goes. Many movies we watched while I attended boarding school had to be approved by the federal government. With the approval of the federal government, these films were filled with violence; violence against women, violence against Native people.

How does domestic violence affect our culture?

Our family is of the Ojibwe Nation in Minnesota and we practice what we know of our culture. There are many Ojibwe people both in the United States, as well as in Canada. Many speak the language; know the songs; know our creation stories; seasonal ceremonies, and daily practices that honor the Mother Earth and all living species. Therefore, we still live our culture.

All of our cultural and spiritual ceremonies require the attendance of the whole family, including the naming ceremonies of our children. Not only are our family events inclusive of immediate family, cousins and friends are invited to attend, including special drum groups to participate in the spiritual event. Further, because of the importance of the ceremony, it becomes a public gathering. Such was the case when one of my sons received his name. Some 250 people showed up for the event.

But if the wife, or husband, or one of the children were a recent victim of domestic violence—and bruises were still visible—the ceremony would be delayed or canceled. This is only one example of how we are affected by this type of violence.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the national statistics on violence against Native women are dismal: 61 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women (or 3 out of 5) have been assaulted in their lifetimes; 34 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes and 39 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be subjected to violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.

In the aftermath of my granddaughter’s violent death, the American Indian Movement (AIM) has begun intense discussions about domestic violence being all around Indian Country and that we, as a national organization, must address this immediately. We also admitted that Native people are supporting the violence by not admitting it.

When doctors of Western medicine find cancer, if possible, they remove the very tumor so that the rest of the body can become healed, because, if left in place, the cancerous tumor will destroy the rest of the body.

This is the measure we need to take for our communities to heal. We need to remove the cancer amongst us. In the old days, B.C. (before Columbus), mean men in our communities were ostracized and cast out of our tribes and nations. Even in the treaty making years, 1750s–1870s, the tribal representatives often included a clause stating that “if bad men existed amongst the whites, they would be expelled from the nation territory.”

So AIM is in the process of conducting a self-examination and developing a major platform on domestic violence, and calling for the colors of all chapters to convene a national conference on halting the violence in our families. This is just the beginning of our journey in examining and eliminating this cancer called domestic violence amongst us.

Domestic violence may not end in our lifetime, but this effort is our major first step.

Dennis Banks (Ojibwe) is the co-founder of the American Indian Movement. In February 2016, he will lead the “Longest Walk V: War on Drugs” that will cross America beginning in San Diego and ending in Washington, D.C.

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