V-Day Indian Country Project 2003 Report
Read the report and view exclusive photos
by ICP Director Suzanne Blue Star Boy
Taos Pueblo, New Mexico
In summer 2002, V-Day developed the Indian Country Project to raise consciousness, awareness and funds around the issues facing Native American women in the United States and First Nations women in Canada. Currently, violence against women and girls in Indian Country is at epidemic proportions. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of incidence (of rape or sexual assault) is 3.5 times higher for Native American women than any other ethnic group in the United States. The rate* continues to rise while Indian women and girls remain invisible as an at-risk population.
The Indian Country Project has local and global fronts. A central goal of the V-Day Indian Country Project is to build grassroots coalitions to strengthen tribal commitments to end violence against women. In addition, V-Day made this project the focus of its 2003 Spotlight in order to use V-Day events around the world to call attention to the issues facing native women, asking all people to stand with Native American women in their struggle to be free of violence. The program also encouraged all V-Day event organizers to contribute up to 10% of their benefit proceeds to support work ending violence in Native American, Native Alaskan, and First Nations communities.
The V-Day 2003 season of over 1000 worldwide benefit performances of "The Vagina Monologues” was officially launched in honor of the Indian Country Project on tribal land in Taos, New Mexico. This event was the first in a series of twenty-five V-Day celebrations on or to benefit reservations and Native American and First Nations women across the United States and Canada.
The following are some of the tribes, nations and tribal members whose communities benefited from V-Day 2003:
Nambe Pueblo, Picuris Pueblo, Pojoaque Pueblo, Santa Clara Pueblo, San Ildefonso Pueblo, San Juan Pueblo, Taos Pueblo, Tesuque Pueblo, Tlingit, Haida, Dakota, Lakota, Cree, Algonquain, Inuit, Yup’ik, Athabaskan, Tsimpsian, Nisga’a, Tahltan, Gilksan, Wet’suwet’en, Squamish, Aleut, Ojibwe, Chippewa, Ojibway, Kainai, Mohawk First Nation-BC, Gipksan, Kamloops; Homolko, Musqueam; Nuxalk, Neskonlith; Sunchild, Saskatchewan, Peguis, Manitoba, Lil'wat; Alberta, Ontario, Coast Salish
The following are highlights and descriptions from my travels to some of the V-Day Indian Country Project events.
- Suzanne Blue Star Boy, June 2003
V-DAY 2003 SEASON OPENS ON TAOS PUEBLO, NEW MEXICO
In February, V-Day Founder/Artistic Director Eve Ensler, Executive Director Jerri Lynn Fields, Worldwide Campaign Director Cecile Lipworth, Worldwide Campaign Associate Director Honey Harris and I traveled to Taos, New Mexico to meet with the Eight Northern Pueblo. With the sound of the drum, the movement of the Buffalo dancers, and the fading voices of the Pueblo singers, V-Day officially opened its 2003 season on tribal land. It was the first in a series of twenty-five V-Day celebrations on or to benefit reservations/Indian Countrywomen across the United States and Canada. The Governor of the Pueblo came to welcome us and all of the actors preparing for the V-Day Taos 2003 benefit in March were also in attendance. They brought traditional food and warm handshakes, and we talked about our lives. Later that day we toured inside the Taos Pueblo and listened to stories about "Blue Lake" located many miles away. A deep-forested mountain valley cradles a small lake that is the headwaters of the Rio Pueblo, which tumbles through the village of the Taos people. Oral tradition holds that the Taos tribe was created out of the sacred waters of Blue Lake. As a place of ritual worship and historic importance, the lake is essential to Taos culture, religion, and daily life. We were honored to begin the V-Day season and the first for the Indian Country Project in such a sacred location.
On March 14, 2003, V-Day Eight Northern Pueblos took place at the Taos Community Auditorium benefiting the Eight Northern Pueblos. Actress/Activist Jane Fonda, a member of V-Day’s V-Counsel, attended and supported the event, along with Cecile Lipworth and myself. The event was organized by Kim Garcia and Brenda Smith Leutsig.
V-DAY ALASKA 2003
V-Day Alaska was a brand new campaign to eliminate violence against Alaskan women and children, with a special emphasis on the Alaskan Native community. Produced by Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre, with major financial support from V-Day and the State of Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Wells Fargo, The Alaska State Council on the Arts, AML Lynden, Aspen Hotels, Avis Rent-A-Car, Northern Air Cargo and the Harper Performing Arts Touring Fund, this project visited Juneau, Sitka, Dillingham, and Bethel in February and March 2003. Over the course of an entire week, V-Day Alaska and its all woman cast and crew sponsored educational workshops, media appearances, and receptions in each community, all designed to bring attention to the problem of violence against women and children and to call each community to action against it. The week in each town culminated with a benefit performance of Eve Ensler’s Obie Award-winning play "The Vagina Monologues" by Perseverance Theatre with ticket receipts donated to the local women’s shelter.
A new report, "Unspoken Crimes: Sexual Assault in Rural America" was recently released and describes the sexual assault in rural America which impacts most of Indian Country.
Following is an excerpt from the report regarding Alaska:
Alaska, the largest state in the United States, measures roughly twice the size of Texas and about one-fifth the size of the lower 48 combined. With more than half the state’s population concentrated in Anchorage, small towns and villages speckle the rest of the Alaskan landscape. Approximately 90% of Alaska cannot be reached by a road system but must be accessed by air or sea travel.
Police in cities and towns carry out law enforcement in those areas, but in fact most communities in the state do not have police departments. Instead, state troopers conduct roving patrols over vast areas known as Detachment Coverage Areas, Rural Alaska is made up of five detachments. State troopers assigned to each detachment have jurisdiction over felonies. In lieu of a constant police presence, communities in these detachments have (VPSO’s), Village Public Safety Officers, who have jurisdiction only over misdemeanors. They do not carry weapons and are usually the first responder in law enforcement situations.
The FBI has quite consistently ranked Alaska with the highest rate of rape in the nation. Alaska has topped that crime category about two-thirds of the time over the past two decades. (Pemberton, 2000) This is particularly alarming because the ranking reflects rapes only and not the broader category of sexual assault. Anchorage, Alaska’s principle urban area with nearly half the state’s population, has an exceedingly high rate of rape. Although the 1999 rate for Anchorage ranked less than the state average for that year, it still had a rate nearly two times higher than then rest of the nation.
1999 Rate of Rape per 100,000 Residents
Nation Alaska Anchorage
32.7 83.5 62.8
(Figures provided by Municipality of Anchorage, Department of Health and Human Services, with a source of Uniform Crime Report. Unspoken Crimes: Sexual Assault in Rural America National Sexual Violence Resource Center A Project of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape By Susan Lewis, Ph.D. ©2003)
V-Day Alaska kicked off in Juneau, the state’s capital, with a week of domestic violence awareness activity leading up to a performance of "The Vagina Monologues" on Sunday, February 16, 2003 at 7:00PM at Centennial Hall to benefit Juneau’s AWARE Women’s Shelter.
A packed house of over 800 attended the V-Day benefit performance of "The Vagina Monologues" in Juneau, (a town of 30,000). The performers received a standing ovation as the audience hollered for more. Directed by Associate Director Anita Maynard Losh, the production featured an ethnically-diverse cast of three including Aleut film actress Jane Lind, originally from Alaska, Vietnamese-American actress Tuyet Thi Pham from Washington, DC and long time Perseverance Theatre company member Alanna Malone from Juneau. The cast in each community was joined by local actors and/or leaders who read certain monologues during the performance. In addition, monologues that were written by both men and women in V-Day organized workshops were also read by their authors on the stage at the conclusion of the evening. Annette Coggins served as the Producer of V-Day Alaska project and worked directly with the shelters in each community to arrange logistics and ancillary workshops.
V-Day Alaska in Sitka, held a performance on Saturday, February 22, 2003 at 7:00PM at Sheet’Ka Kwann Naa Kahidi Community House, benefiting Sitkans Against Family Violence. VDAY organizers were Louise Brady, Vickie D'Amica and Grace Brooks.
From Juneau, we traveled on to Sitka, Alaska where we spent several days meeting with the Chamber of Commerce, the college, local anti-violence groups, men’s writing groups and the women’s shelter. Sitka is settled on Baranof Island, located on the outer coast of Alaska’s inside passage. Like most southeast Alaska communities, Sitka is accessible only by air or sea. During our first day we hiked into Totem Park, which is filled with Tlingit totem poles honoring each clan and their stories. Totem poles generally serve one of four purposes: crest poles give the ancestry of a particular family, history poles record the history of a clan, legend poles illustrate folklore or real life experiences and memorial poles commemorate a particular individual. These poles both gave us strength and support for the work that we were about to embark on in these villages.
In each village we spoke in classrooms, men’s monologue workshops, attended batterers groups, and provided an overview of the V-Day Worldwide and College Campaign - with focus on the Indian Country Project. We worked with each group and asked the question, "What would your community look like if there were no violence in it?" This work fed into the V-Day event where we included the men’s monologues and the women performers. Some examples of the suggested solutions to end violence in the community were:
- Organize a group of people who can problem-solve "ending violence in our community"
- Review Tribal policies and commit funding to those policies
- Create zero tolerance for abuse in our community
For V-Day Sitka, we performed to a sold-out crowd of over 300 people at Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi "The House for the People of Sitka", a Tlingit longhouse, and received a standing ovation to end the evening. In Sitka, they are planning another V-Day event for 2004.
Dillingham, Western Alaska
V-Day Alaska in Dillingham featured a performance on Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 8:00PM at the Dillingham Middle School Gym benefiting Safe and Fear-Free Environment.
Think way west and cold and you’ll find Dillingham, Alaska. This Yup’ik Eskimo, Aleuts and Athabascan village is located at the extreme northern end of Nashagak Bay in northern Bristol Bay, and is 327 miles southwest of Anchorage. Many residents depend on subsistence fishing and trapping to provide cash income. We arrived in temperatures that were in the single digits during the day, and below zero at night. We were freezing. While walking on the banks of the Nashagak River we saw a considerable number of White Whales swimming among the broken ice. It was thrilling to see these white bodies arch gracefully and blow water and air out the top of their heads. Beluga or "white whales" are not born white. They are grey at birth and get lighter and lighter until at about age six they are completely white. Belugas are one of the three kinds of whales that spend all their lives in the artic waters. Belugas are special among the whales because they can turn their heads and will work together using this and other techniques to herd fish into shallow water. They have been given the nickname "sea canaries" because they make so much noise when they’re together. We heard them long before we ever saw them. This truly was a National Geographic moment!
Dillingham is a hub for 30 smaller villages in the region. So much of the abuse and sexual assaults in this area is not reported, but the impact is evident on the streets. In the few short days that we were in the village, we watched women being verbally assaulted by their boyfriends or husbands and observed a couple of drunken brawls in the alley. And it wasn’t even the weekend.
As we had done in Sitka, we held V-Day workshops with teen groups, women’s groups, men's monologues, gave interviews to the regional radio station, met with leaders in the community, attended dinners, and tried to stay warm.
With every village, we, as a group, stayed mindful to the local resistance about producing "The Vagina Monologues" in their community. The Vagina Warriors bravely stepped forward to help smooth the way. In this community many Vagina Friendly Men were our advocates and talked to the local fisherman and encouraged them to bring their wives to the event. The event had a sold-out crowd of over 200 people (in a village of only 1000). Local musicians entertained for the pre-performance, kids helped build the set, and local women made food for the reception after the performance. As Ginger Baim, the Executive Director of the local shelter and VDay organizer, said, "Outside of a basketball game (or funeral of a major local person) this is one of the biggest crowds Dillingham has ever seen and certainly the biggest anyone can remember for a paid event. As we said at the play, even more important [than the turnout] was the mix of people. No one can ever remember so many native women and native couples coming out for a community event. There were bridges built and barriers taken down Saturday night that has forever changed the people of this town. Thank you all so much for doing this for us."
The President of the Health Corporation - who came to the V-Day event talked about the importance of this connection to all of the villages in the outlining communities, "Ending violence is a worthy goal and something that we all should be moving toward as a community."
The final V-Day Alaska benefit took place in Bethel, with a performance on Saturday, March 8, 2003 at 7:00PM at Yup’ik Piciryarait Cultural Center benefiting the Tundra Women’s Coalition.
It was ice cold! Even the sled dogs stayed in their houses during the wind storms that blew daily across the tundra. Blankets of dirt and dust cover the village where no one can escape its penetrating power. Oddly enough, there wasn’t any snow this season - only cold and ice. The weather patterns have changed drastically with very little moisture in the air as the earth warms up. The wind chill, some 25 degrees below zero, seemed to be the norm this week. But every evening at just about 10:00PM, the northern lights bounced off the horizon. Watching them, it was as if we were in a large stadium packed with spectators watching some athletic game just over the hill. The sky felt so close to our bodies that we could almost reach up and touch it. We could see the curve of the blue planet, so close to the artic. Even the falling stars seemed to have a bend in them as they raced into the night. The Yup’ik people have survived these conditions forever, but also know the reality and dangers of mother earth. She packs a punch that requires special survival skills if you intend to live there.
As we arrived, a large gray van pulled up to load our entire cast and crew and hurry us to a log cabin named "The White House." The cabin isn’t white of course, but all of its logs were floated down from up-river on the Kuskokwim, which is 400 miles west of Anchorage and approximately 70 miles from the Bering Sea. Since the river is still frozen, many drive their cars and trucks on the ice from village to village. But the morning that we arrived, we got word that the ice was beginning to crack in some places, and they warned everyone to stay off of it with their vehicles. However, the use of snow machines and dog sleds were still allowed. Ice fishing had been plentiful, but hunting and trapping had been more difficult, since there has been little snowfall.
A young 27-year-old red headed woman (Michelle Dewitt, Executive Director and VDay organizer) greeted us with lunch and introduced us to an equally young group of colleagues known as her staff. Several Yup’ik women talked among themselves but flashed smiles to us in between their conversations. The sound of their language reminded me of how little we knew about these northern people. Their culture is their way of life.
Rumor had it that a group in the village was organizing to protest the V-Day event, so it was very tense and exciting for these shelter women. They have never experienced protests in Bethel, especially ones where "Ending Violence Against Women and Girls" was at the source of the controversy. So the actors, director and I got into gear to do what we do best. We organized our workshops, introduced ourselves in the community, and started talking on live radio. The local radio stations are the best form of communication in rural Alaska. We started with a call-in show where we were able to explain V-Day and the Indian Country Project and its impact on tribes across the country. The station only received calls of curiosity, not controversy, which surprised the local organizers. They seemed relieved and excited about their upcoming V-Day celebration. An elderly Yup’ik woman had decided that she wanted to read "My Angry Vagina" in the production. She told us that she never gets to say those words, so she wanted the opportunity to say them publicly. All of us were elated by her choice.
While there, we got word that a group of Elders, health providers, Tribal law enforcement, and women from the next village wanted us to fly out to talk to them about V-Day and explain our project. We accepted the invitation to travel the next day to Kwethuk (a village of 300 Yup’ik people) also located on the Kuskokwim River. The tiny airplane hopped over the river and flew a short distance and landed on a graveled landing strip. Men, women and children were all driving four-wheelers on the dirt roads, hurrying to get out of the cold. Only a few of the buildings were painted because the paint had fallen off from the cold and wind. As one of the women explained to us, we like our houses without paint! Dried fish were hanging on the drying poles outside of their houses from their recent catch of northern pike. Even the smoke was slowly creeping out of the tops of their homes; it was too cold for it to move any faster.
One by one their bright faces pushed through the new door of the community building. All of the grandmas looking much younger than their age, and all of them felt so proud of their new building. We were welcomed without saying a word. They lined up on chairs as we presented V-DAY and the Indian Country Project focusing on tribal women. The actors then began to read a few of the monologues. The audience members began to lean forward listening quietly and laughing as they covered their mouths. Firstly, they were delighted that we took the time to come out to see them, talk to them and perform for them; secondly, they were happy that they were part of a worldwide movement to end violence against women and girls. We sat in a talking circle as they gave us their account of the problems in their village and began to imagine what their village would look like without violence in it. They too know that no one from the outside was going to ride in to save them. If they were to stop the violence, it had to start with zero tolerance of any form of abuse, and it had to start with them. Their only concern was: Will you come back and help us with our V-Day next year? So many people have traveled here saying that they were going to help us and they never returned. What will V-Day do?
The night of the performance, Yup’ik dancers opened the show to welcome us, three local women read monologues, men from the community read their monologues, and the show was sold out. Joan, the Yup’ik elder, read "My Angry Vagina" and the crowd went wild. She received a standing ovation in the middle of the performance and, as one audience member said, "Bethel will never be the same and that’s a good thing. [She is] a true vagina warrior with the courage to face the real issues in our community."
The next day we packed-up our set and lights and closed the show with a chant calling our relatives into the circle of life and thanking them for making this journey a true success.
With the wind blowing 60 miles per hour, Alaska Airlines bucked the winter gale as we crossed the tundra into the mountains. I sat between two young Yup’ik men preparing to go to the Middle East. Violence, how do we end it?
On April 28, 2003, the National Native Women’s Resource Center held their first V-Day event at the Sabathanl Community Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Nicole Matthews, the organizer of the V-Day event hosted by Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, brought advocates and activists together to perform "The Vagina Monologues." Director Lonna Stevens, a Tlingit/Lakota woman from Alaska, cast six Native women, the first all-Native cast to perform the play in the United States. Eve Ensler and I were honored to attend the event, which was a wonderful success overall.
The Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition is funded through the U.S. Department of Justice, Violence Against Women Office, and is one of eight new Tribal Coalitions around the country formed to address domestic and sexual violence in American Indian Communities. It is the only Sexual Assault Coalition in the state of Minnesota that is specific to American Indian Women.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "American Indians are nearly 13 times more likely to be assaulted or raped than Hispanics, 7 times more likely than Whites, 5 times more likely than African Americans, and 39 times more likely than Asian Americans. In addition, American Indians are more likely than people of other races to experience violence at the hands of someone of a different race." (American Indians and Crime, 1999)*
American Indian Women frequently feel unsupported by the many systems they encounter. They may feel re-victimized by these systems, which fail to understand the cultural differences and may exhibit racism. It is for these and many other reasons that there is a need for this culturally specific Sexual Assault Coalition, which will work to create supportive systems responses and to promote social change for our communities.
This Coalition will unite American Indian Sexual Assault Advocates throughout the State of Minnesota in their efforts to create awareness, influence social change, and reclaim the traditional values that honor the sovereignty of Indian women and children.
Their mission statement reads:
Through unity we will strengthen our voices and build resources to create awareness and eliminate sexual violence against Indian women and children.
We will vigorously apply our efforts toward influencing social change and reclaim our traditional values that honor the sovereignty of Indian women and children.