Native women face disproportionately high rates of sexual violence, domestic abuse — even murder. The Justice Department estimates that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped. Part of the problem is that tribes are restricted in their ability to prosecute, so abusers and predators are attracted to these unprotected women. In Seattle, Norine Hill, who is a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, has founded Mother Nation to help women out of abusive situations and bring them culturally appropriate services so they can rediscover their strength. In this incredibly powerful podcast, we explore some of the historical injustices inflicted on Native Americans, while also sharing Hill’s dramatic personal tale that led her to found Mother Nation.
SUE: Welcome to The Story Exchange. You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...
COLLEEN: ...featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing.
NORINE HILL: We pray together, we share our songs, we share our knowledge, we share our teachings in there.
COLLEEN: I’m Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: I’m Sue Williams.
COLLEEN: In September 2018 there was a disturbing news report about Native American women.
SUE: Native American women have gone missing for years.
COLLEEN: It’s like they’ve simply vanished.
SUE: It’s a terrifying mystery — born of a crisis that’s linked to inadequate resources, isolation, and — some say — outright indifference on the part of authorities.
COLLEEN: Thanks to the #MeToo movement, the issue is finally getting attention.
SUE: And there is a growing activist movement focused on Native women...
COLLEEN: ...who disproportionately face sexual violence...
SUE: ...domestic abuse...
COLLEEN: ...even murder.
SUE: Many are stepping up to do something about it.
NORINE: We are the daughters of warriors, the sisters of survivors, and the mothers of the resilient.
COLLEEN: Today we are speaking to an entrepreneur named Norine Hill.
NORINE: I'm from the Oneida Nation of the Thames.
COLLEEN: Who is on the ground in Washington State...
SUE: ...trying to lift other Native women out of abusive situations.
COLLEEN: And she’s doing it in a way that’s truly unique to her culture and heritage.
SUE: If you want to learn more about the crisis facing so many Native American women...
COLLEEN: ...or you simply want to be inspired by someone who is using social entrepreneurship to make a difference...
SUE: Keep on listening.
NORINE: Mother Nation is a grassroots nonprofit organization. We provide services and mentorship, advocacy, cultural services, and homelessness prevention.
SUE: We’re outside a shelter run by Mother Nation in a southern suburb of Seattle.
NORINE SOT: It’s already tied on there. There’s cedar on the other side if you want to grab some and just add it on.
COLLEEN: It’s a cool winter day and Norine and her staff and women staying in the shelter are building a traditional sweat lodge.
SUE: It’s a simple tent-like structure. It looks like a dome made from branches and leaves.
NORINE SOT: We’re going to find some way to like, link it together to make a roof. Tuck it in there. It will smell nice at the next sweat.
NORINE: Willow is usually what we use for sweat lodges when we build then. And they’re bendable, and that becomes the ribs of your mother. It's like you're going back into your mother's womb for your healing. That's the symbolic part of a sweat lodge.
COLLEEN: Sweats are one of the many services that Mother Nation provides.
SUE (from tape): How many people would be in…?
NORINE: It depends on the lodge. You can get 10 people in there. Some lodges you can fit 20 to 25.
COLLEEN: During the ceremony, rosewater is splashed onto hot lava rocks.
NORINE: Basically, a sweat lodge ceremony is a healing ceremony to cleanse, to release toxins from one's body, to release trauma from their past, to release the hurt, the tears, and we believe the ancestors are in there with us and they're helping us heal from the past.
COLLEEN: Healing — or at least, the need to heal — is a topic that Norine is deeply and personally familiar with. It really influences her work.
SUE: Norine was first molested as a 4-year-old child, growing up on a reservation in Ontario, Canada.
NORINE: I put it away for a long time, those memories, but there was a generation of us abused by a family member there.
COLLEEN: She also was sexually abused during high school, by other men.
NORINE: There was a lot of alcohol involved and drugs involved, and I ended up running away from home.
COLLEEN: Norine says her experiences are, unfortunately, not unique.
NORINE: The majority of our calls that we get are women who are homeless, and domestic violence.
SUE: Norine works with women both on- and off-reservation.
NORINE: Domestic violence is the number one cause of homelessness in the communities that we serve. We'll get women who will call that are living in their car, escaping their abuser, or we'll get a call from a woman who's living in her work car, escaping an abuser.
COLLEEN: Mother Nation provides women with practical help like housing vouchers.
NORINE: We can put them up in a hotel as long as we have a plan for them for housing, and we've helped women who have been chronically homeless for 5 years, 10 years.
SUE: In addition to very practical help with housing, Mother Nation also offers less tangible support.
NORINE: When a person walks in our office, they'll see their intake case manager, but they'll also be seeing our cultural services team as well. Because without cultural identity, and without healing, there's no chance for us as Native people.
COLLEEN: Mother Nation provides the women with traditional healing rituals, like sweats, talking circles and the making of dream catchers.
SUE: Dream catchers are those handmade hoops — often made from willow — that are decorated with beads and feathers.
NORINE: We do a dream catcher workshop, and in the workshop we ask the participant to put a pony bead on for every milestone in their life. We hang them in a window, we hang them in a doorway, wherever we choose to hang them, and that's a symbolic healing tool that we use.
COLLEEN: We’ll come back to Norine Hill, founder of Mother Nation, but first we wanted to delve into some of the reasons why Native women suffer such high rates of abuse...
SUE: ...and outright violence.
COLLEEN: A 2013 report from the National Congress of American Indians found that nearly 40% percent of Native women will be subjected to violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, more than African-American, White, Hispanic or Asian women.
SUE: Native women are also at least twice as likely to experience rape or sexual assault, often committed by non-Native men.
COLLEEN: The Justice Department says 1 in 3 Native women will be raped.
SARAH DEER SOT: One of the reasons that the rate is so high is because the legal structure, as it’s structured today, does not protect Native women.
COLLEEN: That’s Sarah Deer, a legal scholar — that sound bite comes from the Macarthur Foundation’s Fellows Program.
SUE: Deer is a Native woman herself — she and many activists argue that the federal government has stripped tribal courts of their authority, and now those tribal courts lack sufficient power to prosecute crimes against Native women.
COLLEEN: Tribes are still restricted in their ability to prosecute people who aren't tribal members, especially in cases of sex crimes.
SUE: In other words, there’s little recourse if — for example — a white man rapes a Native woman on a reservation.
COLLEEN: And again, the data indicates that most rapes are committed by non-Native men.
SUE: The federal government often declines to pursue cases, even when they fall under its authority.
SARAH DEER SOT: When you don’t protect a particular group of people, then predators and abusers are attracted to that population.
COLLEEN: Many say this it is just another example of Native people — especially Native women — being swept under the rug as if they don’t exist.
LOUISE ERDRICH SOT: It’s very complicated.
SUE: That’s author Louise Erdrich, who is a half Chippewa Indian. She’s explored Native-American themes in her work, including clashes of culture and law. She spoken extensively about this over the years — here she is talking to PBS.
LOUISE ERDRICH SOT: Historically, the underpinnings lie in the complex nature of land tenure on Native reservations. Each piece of land has different jurisdictional authorities.
COLLEEN: She has argued — rather forcefully — that tribal authorities should be given the power to apprehend, charge and try rapists.
SUE: In 2013, she wrote an OpEd for the New York Times called “Rape on the Reservation” — I’ll read a passage because it is both beautiful and heart-wrenching: “A growing number of Native American women wear red shawls to powwows to honor survivors of sexual violence. The shawls, a traditional symbol of nurturing, flow toward the earth. The women seem cloaked in blood. People hush. Everyone rises, not only in respect, for we are jolted into personal memories and griefs. Men and children hold hands, acknowledging the outward spiral of the violations women suffer.”
COLLEEN: While there continues to be debate over whether tribes should be able to prosecute — or whether federal or local authorities should do more to investigate these crimes...
SUE: ...the abuse of Native women could also be linked to the unfortunate reality of life on a reservation.
COLLEEN: Which, thanks to centuries of brutal historical injustices...
SUE: ...is marred by poverty, alcoholism, and things like crystal meth addiction.
COLLEEN: There are even reports of sex trafficking on some reservations.
SUE: It’s pretty grim.
COLLEEN: When Norine Hill was growing up in Ontario, Canada...
NORINE: We're Haudenosaunee people. We're people of the longhouse and there's six nations of us. There's the Oneida, the Mohawk, Tuscarora, the Cayuga, and the Mohawk and the Seneca.
COLLEEN: She heard harrowing tales about authorities rounding up relatives and sending them to a notorious residential school nicknamed “Mush Hole.”
SUE: The school was called that because it served mushy oatmeal that sometimes had worms in it.
NORINE: It happened with my grandfather and even my aunts and my cousins. They were stolen right from their mom.
COLLEEN: She remembers one story in particular...
NORINE: The story my aunt Marylou told me was that her and my cousin Arlene were hiding — they were playing, actually, in the field and they noticed this yellow car come. And the kids used to be told, "If you see the yellow car, run." So, the yellow car came and pulled into my aunt's, which is right next door to my mom's land, my mom and dad's land, and they took the kids.
COLLEEN: This was part of the Canadian government’s forced assimilation process —
SUE: — a policy which was also pursued in the U.S.
COLLEEN: We have a few historical photos right here of Mush Hole. There are rows and rows of Native American children, all dressed in uniforms to look like white children.
SUE: They look miserable — like they’re in prison.
COLLEEN: Which they were, essentially — they were even given numbers instead of names.
NORINE: My grandmother on my mom's side, all of her sisters were in residential school and they were raped. They were beaten. They weren't allowed to speak their language. All of those values we have as Native people were were stripped from them. A lot of them came out as alcoholics when they got older, because there were no programs like we have now at Mother Nation to help them.
COLLEEN: Generations of Native Americans, taken away from their families at such a young age...
NORINE: ...weren't taught how to love, so they didn't teach their children how to love. I didn’t know it at the time but it was all of us that got abused.
COLLEEN: Norine herself became involved with an emotionally abusive Native American man, the father of her three children.
SUE: We want to spend a few moments talking about her story — as it demonstrates what many Native women are up against.
COLLEEN: Norine is actually one of the lucky ones.
SUE: Yes. And some of her story can be difficult to hear.
NORINE: We tried our very best to hold our family together. But we didn't stand a chance to even last in relationship because of the trauma that we both carried.
COLLEEN: Norine met her husband — her common-law husband; they actually never married — back in 1987. At first, he supported her and helped her finish school...
SUE: ...but the relationship spiraled into cycles of abuse.
NORINE: He was raised by a mother who was in residential school and she was very badly beaten, is my only guess, because of the way she beat her children. She abandoned him when he was a year old. So, he had no respect for women.
COLLEEN: It didn’t help that both Norine and her husband drank heavily, partying and leaving the kids with her sister — until finally Norine stopped.
NORINE: I became unappealing to him because I didn't want to be that party girl anymore.
COLLEEN: They’d break up, but she kept going back to him.
SUE: That continued for 14 years.
COLLEEN: Norine sought counseling from a Clan Mother.
SUE: That’s an elder woman, a matriarch.
NORINE: She goes, “Your role is to protect your children, not to protect him." And I looked at her like, "What is she talking about?" She goes, "You listen to me. I'm going to tell you something that's been taken from us. You have to relearn who you are as a Native woman, as a mother."
COLLEEN: And then finally, in 2001...
NORINE: We had a really traumatic morning where he was throwing things at me and he was holding my baby when he was doing it. And I remember the look on my son's face of trauma. And I'll never forget that look that he had on his face.
COLLEEN: Norine moved into a shelter.
SUE: After a while, she insisted he move out of the house, so she and the kids could move back in.
NORINE: So, he left and we were able to have our home back.
COLLEEN: But things got worse.
NORINE: And this is a statistic that happens across any type of community. When a woman leaves, the man becomes more abusive.
COLLEEN: She says he began stalking her.
NORINE: He'd come to the house. He knows the police wouldn't come. He'd bang on the window.
COLLEEN: During this time, Norine started taking self-defense classes.
SUE: And she created her own support network.
NORINE: Because of our sovereign territory that we have, the police weren't allowed to be there without permission. So, when I'd call them, they wouldn't come either. I had to learn how to keep myself safe with my children.
COLLEEN: The clan mothers continued to help her.
SUE: Norine began to reconnect with her culture.
NORINE: So, a clan mother is matrilineal. That's the way we were taught, that it goes through your bloodline, and our clans come through our bloodline. So, I'm a bear because my mother's a bear. Her mother's a bear.
COLLEEN: Norine was determined to get her strength back.
SUE: Around 2003, Norine spent time in Tennessee with a Cherokee and Tuscarora healer.
NORINE: I went into the mountains and and I got my healing. It really helped with letting go of the historical trauma. Understanding my parents, why they raised me a certain way — because they did the best they could. I was able to forgive them.
SUE: She got stronger.
NORINE: Physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
COLLEEN: So when her ex bothered her one last time — she was ready.
NORINE: It was Christmas Eve.
COLLEEN: Norine was having a party at her house, for family.
NORINE: We were saying, "Merry Christmas," to everybody. It was a really nice positive evening.
COLLEEN: But her ex-husband kept calling.
NORINE: He wanted to come to the house and I wouldn't let him. Everyone was scared to leave me. They said, "Maybe we should stay here because he's probably going to come back."
SUE: Her sister stayed.
NORINE: And then, sure enough, everyone left and within minutes after people left, the door got broken down and he busted in the house.
COLLEEN: She rounded up the kids.
NORINE: They were going to open up their presents. I got them all in my room and I told my daughter, "Lock the door.”
SUE: Norine says she and her sister beat him back.
NORINE: We could only do so much and then I told my little sister, I said, "Go in the room with the kids." Because he was going to hurt her because he was in his rage. He couldn't stop it. So, she left and she went in the bedroom with the kids and my kids were screaming.
COLLEEN: Left alone with her ex...
NORINE: I said, “Okay, you've got me here all by yourself. What are you going to do?” He looked at me, and I felt like I grew six, seven feet tall. This is why I really believe in my culture because I know that...I'm a bear clan and it really felt like...I turned into my bear. And I hovered over him, and I said, "What are you going to do?" And he left. He walked out the door. He said, "If I ever see you here with a man, I'm going to kill you," and he left.
COLLEEN: He never bothered Norine again.
SUE: He died a few years later.
COLLEEN: But after that Christmas...
SUE: ...Norine worked even harder on herself.
NORINE: That's when I stopped abusing drugs and alcohol and I became sober, and have been sober ever since that happened.
COLLEEN: And then Norine had a dream that changed the course of her entire life.
SUE: We’ll tell you more about that dream, after a brief break.
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COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Norine Hill, founder of Mother Nation. So...she has left her abusive relationship, confronted the demons of her past, gotten sober...
SUE: She’s been to hell and back, really.
COLLEEN: Then, this dream happens...
SUE: It’s an astonishing dream.
NORINE: Yeah, so the dream that really, really changed my life is when I was — it was in November 2005 and I dreamt of myself being on this ledge.
COLLEEN: She says it was like a cliff by the ocean — and her abusive ex was there.
NORINE: And then I remember seeing this — like a wall between us, and it was like a water wall. Like I touched it and I could see the ripples. I was like, "That's so cool," and I'm like, "You can't do anything to me."
COLLEEN: A healer came to her in the dream.
NORINE: I had an elder with me, spirit guide with me, and he was really tall with long gray hair.
COLLEEN: In her dream, she felt guided to jump into the ocean.
NORINE: I went into the water and I grew fins. When I went under, I could see all these water beings and they're all like, "Yeah, she's back." It was like a celebration that I've returned and I was like, "Wow." I felt so safe and I felt so...healed. It was just beautiful.
COLLEEN: Not long after this dream, Norine took a trip — in real life — with a friend to Washington State.
SUE: They hiked Cape Flattery, a dramatic spot with tree-covered cliffs overlooking the Pacific.
NORINE: I said, "Oh, my God. There's the cliff. There's the cliff that was in my dream.”
COLLEEN: And not long after that...
SUE: ...she packed a U-Haul...
COLLEEN: ...and moved with her three children, all the way to Seattle.
NORINE: And I started my life over here.
COLLEEN: Sue, you interviewed Norine on-camera in Seattle for the video we produced.
COLLEEN: Listeners can watch that video on TheStoryExchange.org. So, not everyone would move themselves — and their family — cross-country based on a dream.
SUE: No, but Norine is a deeply spiritual person.
COLLEEN: And you really felt that when you interviewed her.
SUE: Yes — before we turned the cameras on, she lit bundles of sage to cleanse herself and her office — it’s an ancient cleansing practice.
COLLEEN: It’s called smudging, right?
SUE: Exactly — it’s used by many cultures to drive away negative energy and restore balance to the person and the space.
COLLEEN: Sometimes you can tell when you meet someone that they are carrying so much pain and grief — did you feel that way with Norine?
SUE: No. She says she is still healing but she’s really worked through a lot. I found her quite soft spoken but strong, determined. She looked me right in the eye when she told me even the most horrible parts of her past. There’s a sort of resoluteness about her.
COLLEEN: So, it’s 2006 and Norine has just arrived in Seattle.
NORINE: When I first came here, I was drawn to the Native nonprofits right away and that's where I began my work.
SUE: She took a job with the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.
COLLEEN: Which helps reconnect Native people to their cultural heritage.
SUE: She rose to senior position there, before budget cuts in 2012.
COLLEEN: Then she moved to Catholic Community Services, where she noticed Native women struggling within the “institutional” system.
NORINE: Mainstream services have not worked for our community.
SUE: So Norine started designing special programs for Native women, involving talking circles.
COLLEEN: Talking circles are a traditional way for Native Americans to solve problems.
NORINE: We started having more of these circles and inspiring them to make their own decisions, to do their own work, to do their own healing.
COLLEEN: The services took off.
NORINE: And more elders start hearing about work and more elders start coming out of retirement to support us.
SUE: By 2014, Norine had decided to form her own nonprofit agency called Native Women in Need.
NORINE: We started it in a sweat lodge. We prayed about it and the answers came through there on how we would start creating it, how we would do it, who would be on our board, right down to what kind of services we were going to offer.
COLLEEN: In 2016 she changed the name to Mother Nation.
SUE: It focuses on case management for homeless prevention and advocacy for women in domestic violence situations.
NORINE: We have 7 employees and 20 volunteers, and we have a board of directors of 4 — or, sorry, 5. We have 5 board of directors.
COLLEEN: Mother Nation continues to grow.
NORINE: We're getting up to $630,000 now for operating budget.
SUE (from tape): Wow.
NORINE: So, yeah, we're growing. And we have an office. It's no longer in my car.
COLLEEN: The funding comes from a variety of sources...
SUE: ...like city or county grants.
COLLEEN: Or charitable donations from individuals, foundations and tribal casinos.
NORINE: There's 29 tribes in the state of Washington, and the ones that have the casinos, they're required to donate towards nonprofit charitable organizations. We’ve helped about 300 women in the past 2 years. It’s not a high number because it’s not an assembly line. Sometimes women, they heal faster than others.
COLLEEN: Earlier in this podcast, we talked about the growing awareness that so many Native American women have gone missing or been murdered.
SUE: There has been some progress on the national level.
COLLEEN: In 2017, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp introduced Savanna's Act, which aims to protect Native American women and girls from violence.
SUE: Here’s a clip of her speaking before Congress, from the Senator’s YouTube channel.
HEIDI HEITKAMP SOT: There is no official database or requirement for information-collecting regarding the number of missing and murdered Native women. It’s critical that Congress push the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI to work with tribal communities to come up with culturally appropriate protocols to respond to cases of missing and murdered Native women.
COLLEEN: The bipartisan measure is named for a pregnant Native woman in Fargo who was killed and whose baby was taken.
SUE: There’s also a social media campaign using the hashtag #notinvisible to shine a spotlight on the issue.
COLLEEN: In Seattle, Norine plans to continue Mother Nation’s services for many years to come, although...
NORINE: We don't go too far ahead with our vision. We want to be able to live in the present.
SUE: She’s grateful but not surprised that her agency has come into its own, just as global movements like #MeToo have brought attention to the long-hidden stories of women and sexual abuse.
NORINE: We were told 10 years ago that Mother Nation would be in a perfect place for that when it happens and it's happening now. We were told that in our prophecies. We're just playing our role. That's what we're doing.
COLLEEN: We thank Norine Hill for sharing her story.
SUE: And we thank you for listening.
COLLEEN: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] — or find us on Facebook. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.