In the fall of 2020, a young woman from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts was kidnapped on her 18th birthday. Her body was found about a month later, more than 1,000 miles from her home.
The kidnapping and murder hit close to home for Jennifer Randolph, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah (Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe). One of her daughters was the same age as the young woman at the time.
Randolph also had been working tirelessly with her tribal government on Martha’s Vineyard to help survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in her tribal community, but she was not seeing the progress she wanted.
The Mashpee and Aquinnah are sister Wampanoag tribes. The Mashpee tribe resides on the mainland of Massachusetts, while Aquinnah is on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
“It really hit close to home,” Randolph said. “Like, that could have been my kid. It could be any of our family members, really, because there’s so many of us living in the New Bedford area.”
The Mashpee woman’s kidnapping and murder stood as a wake-up call for Randolph to develop the Northeast Native Network of Kinship and Healing, or Kinship Heals. Kinship Heals is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that will provide programs to create shelters and bring culturally specific healing to Northeast Native women. Kinship Heals’ services include shelter, transitional assistance, and relocation, or STAR; Red Alert Indigeneous Notification System, or RAIN; ceremony, advocacy, resources, and experience, or CARE; food equity and sovereignty traditions, or FEAST. More can be found on the group's website, kinshipheals.org.
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Kinship Heals is a move not only toward reducing violence against Native women, but also bringing culturally relevant trauma healing to a region where people have too long been made to feel as if they no longer exist.
Across the country, American Indian and Alaska Native women experience domestic violence and sexual assault at rates higher than any other ethnicities, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. New England, Randolph shared, is no exception.
A 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice found that over 84% of Native American women experience violence in their lifetime. These acts are done by non-Native perpetrators 80% of the time. Additionally, 2019 estimates from the United States Census Bureau say there are over 500,000 Native Americans living in the Northeast region of the United States.
Back in 2013, Randolph conducted an assessment of her tribe on the Vineyard, where she asked tribal members questions about their life experiences that may classify as domestic violence or sexual assault. She found that rates in her tribe lined up with national statistics.
While there has been growing attention—and increased programming—to address this violence against Native women in more Western states, like Arizona or Alaska, little has happened in the Northeast. By comparison, Randolph said, there are zero shelters specific for Native women in the entire Northeast area and scant programming. Additionally, the remoteness of being on an island only hinders the amount of available resources. Randolph is working to change all of that.
She explained that after learning about the kidnapping, her tribal chairperson reached out to the Mashpee tribe offering their support and help.
“They said thank you, but that was it, because no one really knew what to do or what to say and how to go about it,” Randolph said. “And that really bothered me. We need to know what we can do ahead of time, so that when something does happen, we can react in a coordinated way and get the message out.”
At the same time, Randolph was reading the book Our Beloved Kin by Lisa Brooks, about the first contact between the European settlers and the Wampanoag tribe, the “People of the First Light.” The book centers around Weetamoo, a female Wampanoag leader, fighting the colonial government. The colonists worked to divide and conquer the Native American tribes.
Randolph said she realized this divide-and-conquer mentality never went away; each tribe doing its own thing rather than working together for communal benefit is isolating tribal members and harming them still, as it was after the colonists first arrived. She said she learned that if tribes ever want to regain their strength as communities, they need to reject the individualistic view the colonists forced on them.
“We have to stop trying to function in that way, … and maybe go back to doing what we used to do when we were strong … really respecting how the interconnectedness of the way we used to do things would not only bring us healing and peace, but it would also provide us protection and strength,” Randolph explained.
In pursuit of healing from the many traumas of colonization and regaining the strength Native communities once had, Randolph saw the urgency and necessity for an organization uniting the tribes in the Northeast to amplify their voices, generating more awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault affecting Northeast Native women. Randolph shared how cases of missing white women spread throughout national news fairly quickly, often allowing for fast results.
“And when one of ours goes missing, you know, there's no news about it at all,” Randolph said. “So the goal here would be to have the tribes that are along our area all participate. We will have a plan of a one Native response for the tribal governments to do.”
This plan manifests in her program RAIN, one of the services Kinship Heals plans to offer. RAIN’s goal is not only to improve the chance of saving missing Indigenous women through quicker response time, but also as a reminder that Indigenous women are important and powerful.
“If we make so much noise, people will go, ‘Oh, that person is not so vulnerable, you know, because anytime you mess with a Wampanoag person, or anytime you mess with so and so, all of the newspapers go crazy,’” Randolph said. “That's kind of what I'd like to see happen. You know, when one of us goes missing, everybody knows about it. And so it becomes a deterrent from taking one of ours.”
Across the country, groups are working to raise awareness of the safety of Native women. This issue is neither isolated to the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe nor tribes in the Western states. Rather, the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault have persisted through time, especially hurting Native women due to racist and discriminatory societal attitudes.
Jeneile Luebke, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing, works to help Native American women in healing from domestic violence and sexual assault trauma, specifically in the Wisconsin region. Luebke shared that some Native women she has worked with have found themselves needing to lie to the police, such as saying a gun was involved, to access help, due to the racism and discrimination still present in the justice system. She added that domestic violence and sexual assault affecting Native people is not something new.
“The rates haven’t just gone up,” Luebke said. “They’ve always been like this. They’re just getting better, finally, at data collection, although that’s still a hot mess.”
Domestic violence and sexual assault are not always easy to recognize. Tnisha Chandler, Kinship Heals board president and director of programs, revealed she did not realize how prevalent domestic violence truly is until a 40-hour domestic violence training. Chandler shared an example she initially just brushed off as weird, where a woman’s husband demanded complete control of his wife’s whereabouts.
“No, she's not coming in [to work] with bruises on her body, but trying to have that power and control over someone is abuse,” Chandler said. “And that's something that I didn't know before.”
Sarah Deer, professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies and public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas, explained that since domestic violence and sexual assault can be hard to recognize, many deny it's happening in their community. This can be especially relevant to tribal nations due to the centuries of warped, inaccurate journalism they have faced, causing tribes to be constantly fighting an uphill battle to sustain credibility.
“There’s some concern that if we admit we have this problem, then it will be used against us,” Deer said. “Then, you know, people will say, ‘Oh, that’s the tribe with all the DV,’ which is not the kind of image that tribal nations want.”
Domestic violence and sexual assault are universal issues, though, and it is vital to fight the stigma in order to decrease their frequency and help survivors. Kinship Heals hosted a virtual meet-and-greet on January 15 to explain its plans and receive community feedback. In this Zoom call, Randolph explained programs the organization plans to implement.
In addition to RAIN, Randolph plans to incorporate what she calls STAR into Kinship Heals. STAR involves creating a shelter on Martha’s Vineyard, supporting the transition from staying in a shelter to living independently, and assisting in relocation after staying in a shelter. Unfortunately, finding shelter on Martha’s Vineyard is no easy task.
The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe has reached out to different organizations on the island to rent out shelter space, but have struggled to find any sustainable options, Randolph explained. Churches may allow homeless people to stay inside during the winter months, but COVID-19 has complicated this. Martha’s Vineyard Community Services this year will allow people to shelter in a portion of their building for the night, but they must be gone first thing in the morning.
Randolph added that the tribal government has reached out to people who rent out property on the island, but they are always told that there are no openings. Many who don’t live on the island year-round pay rent for their mansions and multi-million-dollar houses to keep them heated and staffed, even when they are empty, because they don’t want to worry about property damage or having to get someone out of their rented house.
Sayra Pinto, a board member for Kinship Heals, explained that these housing issues have caused many members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe to be forced to stay with their abusers because there is no place on the island for them to go.
“Martha's Vineyard for me is an incredibly poignant tale, right, that you have the 1% of this country using it as a playground every year,” Pinto said. “The housing stock is empty 9 months out of the year, and the people of that land have no place of refuge.”
An additional challenge of getting access to safety and healing services for those who live on Martha’s Vineyard is the remote nature of being on an island. While they have a hospital, there are only 25 beds and a limited amount of services offered. Boats to the mainland from the Vineyard do not run all day, and tickets are expensive. Total travel time from Aquinnah to the mainland adds up, making it a multi-hour trip. Tribes in the West are often very remote from many services, and though Martha’s Vineyard is a popular East Coast destination, the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe experiences a similar level of remoteness.
“It’s still a trip, but it feels different,” Randolph said. “It looks different. It doesn't look so remote, but it is still two hours to get to a hospital where there is a sexual assault nurse examiner.”
Another core component of Kinship Heals is the program CARE. The program will provide resources on the island for advocacy accompaniment and referrals to other agencies for cultural services and healing spaces, and will overall integrate culture into healing from domestic violence and sexual assault trauma. CARE is key to what differentiates Kinship Heals from other domestic violence and sexual assault programs through incorporating culture into trauma healing.
After experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault, people often feel defeated and confused, filled with self-blame, self-doubt, and an overall sense of disconnect from the world, Luebke explained. Being able to connect or reconnect with one’s culture can be particularly impactful in healing from the trauma.
“Native identity is not just, you know, having an enrollment card or having a blood quantum,” Luebke said. “It’s a way of life.”
Randolph explained that they plan to have opportunities for people to participate in traditional ceremonies, such as circles for healing, providing a sense of community in a time that can feel very isolating. Many members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, even those living on the island, have grown disconnected from the tribe’s traditions and customs. Even if they may have been taught about them, many have not been able to experience them for themselves.
Randolph plans to hold ceremonies and provide occasions to teach tribal members to make Native regalia, such as moccasins and jewelry. She also hopes to teach more tribal members about their traditional Three Sisters Garden planting method and use these spaces to grow traditional medicine and expand access to Indigenous foods.
The program Randolph calls FEAST aims to provide a stable food pantry for tribal members through Indigenous food options where people may pick traditional foods such as cranberries or beach plums, as well as get involved in hunting and shellfishing like their ancestors had done.
“It's really empowering to take back what's yours,” Randolph said. “So even if it's someone's first time, it's amazing how that transforms and how much healing people get from that.”
Luebke emphasized the power of incorporating culture into trauma healing, both for Natives who were raised traditionally as well as for those who have grappled with figuring out where they belong. Growing up, Luebke struggled to figure out if she fits as “more white” or “more Native,” so when she sought help after experiencing trauma, she found learning more about her Native culture to be healing and empowering.
“Speaking from experience, that meant the world to me to be able to have elders, or aunties, like, help me learn how to make ribbon skirts,” Luebke said. “I did not have that growing up.”
Randolph added that much of her domestic violence and sexual assault prevention training led her to finally understand how her experience with domestic violence still affected her.
“It's healing if you know what happened to you, or if you understand something that you've been through up here,” Randolph said, pointing to her head.
“It starts for you to be able to heal over here,” she said pointing to her heart. “So I wanted everyone in our community, as many people as possible, to have that information.”
Randolph concluded the virtual January meet-and-greet with her broader, long-term goals for Kinship Heals. Unfortunately, since around 80% of domestic violence and sexual assault cases against Native women are done by a non-Native perpetrator, this problem does not seem to be going away any time soon. Thus, Randolph wants to build something sustainable and multi-generational with reviving many traditional tribal practices for healing from individual and collective trauma.
“My thought is, if it was my grandchildren, I want them to have certain spaces and resources and a community that's going to support them,” Randolph said. “And that's how I look at this work. It's not just for us right now. I want it to be something that's going to be there for our grandbabies and our great-grandchildren. And it's going to take all of us.”