Grandmother Dishonored: Violence against Women by Male Partners in American Indian Communities

By Chester, Barbara; Robin, Robert W. et al. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

Grandmother Dishonored: Violence against Women by Male Partners in American Indian Communities


Chester, Barbara, Robin, Robert W., Koss, Mary P., Lopez, Joyce, Goldman, David, Violence and Victims


Extensive and scrupulously conducted research during the past decade has established the issue of violence against women by male partners as both an international human rights issue and a public health problem of national concern. This research has rarely been extended into communities of color, and, in particular, to American Indian women.

This article presents conceptual and methodological factors involved in conducting research with American Indian women, a comprehensive literature review of available data, assertions regarding abuse of women by male partners in American Indian communities, and directions for future research.

"Our grandmother, the earth, is a woman, and in mistreating your wife, you will be mistreating her. Most assuredly you will be abusing our grandmother if you act thus."

(Winnebago man)

Extensive and well-conducted research, ongoing since the 1980s, has been essential to the international recognition of domestic violence. Amnesty International, the United Nations, and governments throughout the world have finally recognized violence against women as a pressing human rights issue (Browne, 1993). The Surgeon General and other medical professionals now legitimate wife battering as a medical and public health issue (Novello, Rosenberg, & Saltzman, 1992).

Current research, including a recent survey of 20 studies from a wide variety of countries, documents physical abuse by a partner or former partner in 25%-50% of women (Browne & Williams, 1993). In the United States, between 22%-35% of women seen in emergency services regardless of stated presenting problem have injuries related to battering, making wife abuse the single most common cause of injuries to women requiring medical intervention. Young women are most at risk (Goodman, Koss, & Russo, 1992). In addition, 37% of obstetric patients report physical abuse by their partners during pregnancy (McFarlane, Parker, Soeken, & Bullock, 1992; Sugg & Inui, 1992).

This extensive academic attention to wife abuse has rarely been extended to women from ethnic minority groups, and the data from existing research are often not generalizable to women within these groups.

The major source of data on wife abuse has been the national family violence surveys, which are based primarily on telephone interviews. The methodological limitations of these studies result in underrepresentation of racial minorities, women living in poverty who cannot afford telephones, women in remote areas without access to telephone lines, and non-English speakers, even though these groups of women are at highest risk for all types of violence (Goodman et al., 1992). This consistent source of bias has led to a "selective inattention" to research on violence against minority women (Hawkins, 1986).

These factors especially impact American Indian women on reservations, many of whom do not possess telephones or are non-English-speaking. In addition, nearly one third of all American Indian adults have been classified as illiterate, making mail surveys impractical (Fleming, 1992).

Definitions of behaviors for denoting abuse of women by male partners have also been problematic. Various forms and degrees of physical and verbal abuse have been incorporated into nonspecific terms such as conjugal violence, domestic violence, and family violence. In addition, some studies include abuse and neglect of children under this rubric, whereas others include only wife battering or abuse. The locus of initiation of violence has also not been examined in any of the studies and writings of domestic violence among American Indian people, leading to unsubstantiated notions among some service workers that women within certain tribal groups initiate violence to an equal or greater degree than do their male partners.

In addition, terms like wife beating or battering omit violence occurring between nonmarried intimates, which is particularly problematic with some tribal societies where common- law marriages are normative. …

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