A Survivor Uses Sweat Lodges, Talking Circles and Dream Catchers to Bring Healing to Native Women

At Mother Nation, Norine Hill uses cultural traditions to help Native American women recover from abuse and homelessness.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.

 

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.

[Related: Q&A: New Mexico’s Deb Haaland on Bringing a Native American Voice to Congress]

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.

[Related: A Beauty Queen’s Nonprofit Stands Against Domestic Abuse]

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.  

[Related: Meet the Arizona entrepreneur who helps the homeless find shelter]

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.”

Read Full Transcript

Norine: The Mother Nation, we are the daughters of warriors, the sisters of survivors, and the mothers of the resilient. We are beautiful indigenous women.

TEXT: Norine Hill – Founder + CEO Mother Nation – Seattle, Wash.

Norine: Mother Nation is a grassroots nonprofit organization. We provide services and mentorship, advocacy, cultural services, and homelessness prevention. It's custom designed for each participant. We focus on that cultural part of who they are to regain their cultural identity again.

TEXT: Norine is a member of the Oneida Nation. Their homelands are in New York and Ontario, Canada.

TEXT: She was raised on the Oneida settlement near London, Ontario.

Norine: My grandfather and even my aunts and my cousins, they were stolen right from their mom by white people. They were put into boarding school. They were raped. They were beaten. They weren't allowed to speak their language. They weren't taught how to love, so they didn't teach their children how to love.

TEXT: Norine was sexually abused for the first time when she was 4.

Norine: There was a lot of alcohol and drugs involved and I ended up running away from home. I would steal and I got really good at it. This is how I used to survive on the streets.

TEXT: In 1987 Norine met the man who became the father of her three children.

Norine: When I met the kids' dad, I found somebody who was going to take care of me. He supported me a lot. He really pushed me through school and helped me finish and when I finished, I felt so good.

TEXT: Norine went to Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. But by 2000 the relationship with her partner spiraled into cycles of abuse.

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.

TEXT: Norine looked for help from Oneida Clan Mothers and traditional Native healers.

Norine: So I ended up in Tennessee with a Cherokee and Tuscarora healer and it changed my whole life. It changed who I was. It really helped with letting for of the historical trauma part of it.

TEXT: In 2005 Norine dreamed she was standing on a cliff high above the ocean. Soon after she decided to move to Seattle to continue her healing.

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. 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: When I first came here, I was drawn to the Native nonprofits to gain knowledge of the community of where I'm at, and to acknowledge the territory I'm on.

SOT: This is to protect our prayers and our healing.

TEXT: Norine began to work for Catholic Community Services’ Spirit Journey House. In her spare time, she helped Native women struggling with the system.

Norine: I had a friend, a best friend that was having issues with her child's school. So I called the school. I said, “I’m calling from Native Women in Need. I'm going to be attending the meeting with my friend.” And it changed everything for her. I said, “Look how easy that was. We just called and said you had support and they totally changed their demeanor in how they’re dealing with you.” She goes, “Yeah.”

TEXT: In 2012 Norine started Native Women in Need.

SOT: She’s our new cultural services coordinator. Yeah, she’s going to be working with Arlene for the house and for the community.

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. We've helped women who have been chronically homeless for 5 years, 10 years.

TEXT: The organization holds talking circles and sweat lodge ceremonies to help the women cleanse and heal.

Norine: We pray together, we share our songs, we share our knowledge, and it's a safe place for them to come to, you know, release whatever's going on with them at that time.

SOT: I know that if I wasn’t here in this home I wouldn’t have my own home today.

TEXT: In 2016 the organization changed its name to Mother Nation. It has 9 employees and an operating budget of over $600,000 a year.

TEXT: Funding comes from tribal casinos, individual donors, foundations and government agencies.

Norine: 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.

Norine: They have to want it. They have to be able to be ready for it. Once they get into our mentorship program, we invest in them and they become successful, and they find their place and their path. Their get their housing. They get their children back. They have employment and they start living their life.

Posted: May 7, 2018

Colleen DeBaiseA Survivor Uses Sweat Lodges, Talking Circles and Dream Catchers to Bring Healing to Native Women