At Mother Nation, Norine Hill uses cultural traditions to help Native American women recover from abuse and homelessness.
Norine Hill builds her sweat lodges from fresh willow. The bendable branches become “the ribs of your mother,” she says. “It’s like you’re going back into your mother’s womb for your healing.”
For Hill, a sweat lodge — a dome-shaped structure, made in the Native American tradition — is a place where physical and spiritual cleansing happens. As founder of Mother Nation in Seattle, she regularly gathers women inside the simple lodges “to release toxins from one’s body, to release trauma from their past, to release the hurt, the tears,” she says. “We believe the ancestors are in there with us … and they’re helping us heal from the past.”
Hill is a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, and her nonprofit organization aims to lift other Native American women out of domestic violence, homelessness and addiction in part by connecting them to cultural services like sweats, talking circles and the building of dream catchers. She brings years of experience working for Seattle-area nonprofits — and a deep understanding of the issues, as a survivor herself of an abusive relationship, homelessness and alcoholism.
Cycle of Abuse
Native American women are particularly likely to face abuse. Nearly 40 percent suffer domestic violence by an intimate partner, more than any other group, according to a 2013 report by the National Congress of American Indians. Native American women are also at least twice as likely to experience rape or sexual assault crime, often perpetrated by non-Native men. “Native women on tribal lands lack the most government protections from the threat of violence against them,” according to the NCAI report.
A host of factors — many linked to centuries of historical injustices — are to blame. Today, on many reservations, Native Americans face isolation, joblessness and inadequate access to education. There are epidemics of crystal meth addiction on some reservations, and even reports of sex trafficking. Looming above all is something mental-health researchers refer to as intergenerational trauma, where the consequences of brutal oppression are handed down from parent to child.
In Hill’s case, growing up in London, Ontario, she heard harrowing tales about authorities rounding up relatives and sending them to a notorious residential school nicknamed “Mush Hole” as part of the Canadian government’s forced assimilation process (which was a policy also pursued in the U.S.). “They were stolen right from their mom,” she says. “They were beaten. They weren’t allowed to speak their language. A lot of them came out as alcoholics.”
Generations of Native Americans, taken away from their families at such a young age, she says, “weren’t taught how to love, so they didn’t teach their children how to love.”
Hill says she was molested as a child, and later dropped out of school, lived on the streets and eventually became involved with an emotionally abusive Native American man. She sought counseling from a Clan Mother — an elder matriarch — who ultimately helped her leave the abusive relationship. Around 2003, Hill also spent time in Tennessee with a Cherokee and Tuscarora healer.
“I went into the mountains and … it really helped with letting go of the historical trauma,” she says. “It changed my whole life. Understanding my parents, why they raised me a certain way — because they did the best they could. I was able to forgive them.” She stopped using alcohol and drugs and has been sober since.
Inspired by a Dream
In 2005, Hill had a dream. “I was standing on a cliff by the ocean,” she says. “I jumped and I grew fins and I could breathe again. It was just beautiful.” Soon after, she took a trip with a friend to the state of Washington, where they hiked Cape Flattery — a dramatic spot with tree-covered cliffs overlooking the Pacific. “I said, ‘Oh, my God. There’s the cliff that was in my dream,’” she remembers. In 2006, she packed a U-Haul and moved cross country with her three children to Seattle. “And I started my life over.”
Hill took a job with the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, which helps reconnect Native people to their cultural heritage, rising to a senior position before a 2012 layoff. She moved to a position at a Catholic Community Services recovery center called Spirit Journey House, where she noticed Native women struggling within the “institutional” system. “Mainstream services have not worked for our community,” she says.
That’s when she started Native Women in Need, providing women with practical help like housing vouchers, but also incorporating traditional rituals such as sweats. The organization grew quickly, and in 2014 she decided to form a 501(c)(3) organization. In 2016, she changed the name to Mother Nation, focusing on case management for homeless prevention and advocacy for women in domestic violence situations. The agency now has nine employees and an operating budget of more than $600,000. Most of the funding comes from city or county grants, charitable donations from tribal casinos, and individuals or private foundations. Cultural services like the sweats are free of charge to women in need.
“We’ve helped 300 women in the past 2 years,” Hill says. “It’s not a high number because it’s not an assembly line.”
One woman, Ellena, shared her story of healing on Mother Nation’s website. “I was hopeless,” she says, after an alcohol-related car crash. Now in recovery through a 12-step program, “I practice my praying and I go to the sweat lodge,” she says, which she also compares to a mother’s womb. “It’s to help cleanse our heart, our mind and our spirit.”
Hill plans to continue Mother Nation’s services for many years to come, though “we don’t go too far ahead with our vision,” she says. “The main thing is to live in the present moment.” She’s grateful but not surprised that her agency has come into its own, just as global movements like #MeToo have brought attention to healing women from abuse. “We were told [through prophecies] 10 years ago that Mother Nation would be in a perfect place for that when it happens, and it’s happening now,” she says. “We’re just playing our role.”
Posted: May 7, 2018