Before she started on her path to recovery, Morgan Black Crow was struggling. She’d been homeless for four years, was living in a shelter and was caught in an abusive relationship.
Things started to change when she met Norine Hill, founder and CEO of Native Women in Need. Hill’s organization helped Black Crow with little things: bus tickets, clothing vouchers and gas cards — “anything to help me get spiritually and financially able to move forward,” Black Crow recalls.
But before long, Black Crow was recovering in bigger ways. With the help of Native Women in Need — now named Mother Nation — Black Crow found Section 8 affordable housing for herself, her two young children, her brother and her mother, who survived two heart attacks. Mother Nation also helped her finish her program in industrial manufacturing, take her two kids to school, feed them on Thanksgiving and buy them Christmas and birthday presents. Black Crow credits Hill with turning her life around. “We were homeless going through a lot, and she made it happen,” she said, unable to hold back the tears.
Mother Nation, which took on its new name on International Women’s Day in April, was founded by Hill in 2013. Originally it was an informal volunteer Native women’s circle for Hill and women she knew. Now, the nonprofit organization partners with tribes, non-Native and Native agencies to fill the gaps in services for Native American women in Washington state. It’s the only organization in the state entirely dedicated to supporting this demographic.
Mother Nation helps Native women in crisis situations leave domestic abusers, find housing and recover from addiction. It helps them find legal assistance, jobs, scholarships and advocates for them when they need a voice in domestic violence court, the hospital or a school parent meeting. And for a demographic victimized at shockingly disproportionate rates, Mother Nation helps women heal from the scars of sexual and domestic violence and intergenerational trauma.
“Out of the hundreds of women that we’ve serviced since the last four years, every one of them has suffered sexual violence and domestic violence,” Hill said. “And that’s including our volunteers.”
Hill herself is a survivor, and five of the women now working for the organization used to be on the receiving end of help. As Hill puts it, “We’re Native women servicing Native women. We’re survivors servicing survivors.”
More than half of Native American women nationwide have experienced sexual and domestic violence, according to 2010 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) data. Of the women who have experienced sexual violence, 96 percent of them were victimized by a non-Native. The actual percentages may be higher due to underreporting, the DOJ report cautions.
Homelessness is another issue disproportionately affecting Native women, with Native Americans in Seattle seven times more likely to be homeless than Whites. According to Hill, most of the women Mother Nation serves are homeless, and many of them lived in the former encampment The Jungle. “Wherever they call us from, we come to them,” Hill said.
With homelessness one of the biggest issues across Washington state, Hill said, “it’s important to remember that a big percentage of those homeless folks are Native women that are fleeing from domestic violence.”
Deborah Parker, vice-chair of the Tulalip Tribe who has long worked on issues of domestic and sexual violence among Native American women, started volunteering with Mother Nation in 2013, the same year she successfully fought to have a provision of the Violence Against Women Act allow Native women to prosecute non-Native abusers. Parker was one of five people appointed by Bernie Sanders to the Democratic National Convention platform committee in 2016.
Parker is now a policy analyst with Mother Nation. She said she was drawn to the organization after seeing how positively Native women responded to its culturally grounded services — that and founder Hill’s dedication.
“Norine was able to help day or night, her and her team,” Parker said. “There’s such a high need for our Native American women to receive services, and not just any kind of services — culturally appropriate services.”
The gap in mainstream social services for Native women is a big reason why Mother Nation exists, Hill said.
“The system does not work for us. It never has,” she said.
Conventional services programs that require women to fill out a lot of forms detailing the trauma they’ve experienced are a problem, Hill said, because some women don’t know how they’ll be judged. “So some of them don’t turn up for those appointments when they’re by themselves, unless they have extra support.”
Black Crow experienced this herself. When she was homeless, she said she struggled with mainstream service providers. “We were homeless for so long because we couldn’t find a program that tailored to Native Americans,” she said.
Homeless advocacy programs in Washington state don’t always understand that Native women may experience inter-generational trauma, Hill said.
“Some of them say, ‘Well what is that? We don’t understand it, why do they still carry that when it’s way past?’” Such trauma isn’t in the distant past for Native women, Hill points out. “It’s not that far away, and we’re trying to break that violence, we’re trying to stop that cycle.”
And while some institutional programs put women in boxes according to the type of trauma they’ve experienced, Mother Nation addresses trauma holistically, using methods rooted in traditional cultural practices.
“[What] we’re doing, it’s reclaiming their culture, it’s going back to the teachings, back to the values of being Native,” Hill said.
Mother Nation’s services are custom-designed according to each particular woman’s needs. Some of these services include workshops led by group of elders, who blend cultural practices with clinical treatments.
A therapeutic sweat lodge helps release trauma by cleansing body, mind and spirit, and is connected to cultural teachings.
“When you’re in a sweat lodge they say you’re back in your mother’s womb again, and those rocks are your grandfather,” Hill said.
In another workshop, women put beads on a dream catcher for every milestone in their lives. Often, the women’s milestones are tragic — losing a child, 10 years of domestic violence, rape, violent deaths in their lives.
When they’ve added all their beads to the dream catcher, the women present them to the elders, who use clinical guidance to talk through the story of their lives.
“The way that we believe as Native American people, indigenous women is that your struggle represents who you are today,” Hill said. “By looking at what has happened to you in the past it brings you back to the present — and you wouldn’t be the thoughtful, compassionate woman if you hadn’t gone through that struggle.”
Mother Nation’s name change in March was a testament to its growth, Hill said, and better reflects its goals and accomplishments. It also links the group to other indigenous women’s movements around the world.
“There’s a lot of indigenous women’s groups rising and coming forward,” Hill said. “Our organization set out three years ago to help those women pick them up, pick up their spirits and uplift them, and help them get past those trauma stages to getting back on their path of life.”
Mother Nation was “brought together on prayer,” Hill said, and she hasn’t stopped praying for success for organization and the work it does.
“It can replace any paycheck anywhere, the feeling that it gives to be a part of that.”
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