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Shauna Jackson and Alyssa Bravo, both interns for Haseya, help weed the medicine wheel healing garden in Colorado Springs on September 5, 2019. The garden consists of sage, tobacco, cedar, and sweet grass which are all traditional medicines. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

COLORADO SPRINGS — Every year, during powwow season, Monycka Snowbird prints fliers with tear-off tabs for Haseya Advocate Program, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit that serves Native American women who have suffered domestic abuse or sexual assault.

She hopes to find only one or two tabs pulled by the end of each event, but often most are gone. This, she says, is because four out of five Native women experience some form of abuse in their lives. 

Haseya, which helps abused women connect with one another and provides resources for healing, this spring began creating a new kind of safe space for its clients, high on a hill with Pikes Peak as a backdrop.

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A vacant lot donated to the organization has been converted into the Haseya Indigenous Healing Garden, where Native women who have experienced violence can come together, garden, connect with others and use traditional ways of healing to make a life change. 

Monycka Snowbird, of Ojibwe descent, is one of the main Haseya advocates and leaders in the organization. She had the idea and implemented the healing garden as a space for victims of violence to connect with another in a comfortable space. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There’s no shortage of women who may need the help, Snowbird says. Colorado’s Front Range has a Native population of 80,000 and growing.  

“Women are moving here from North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Utah, for our unique programming and the support we offer. One of our greatest strengths is that we have a community of survivors,” Snowbird explained as she relaxed in the shade of a tree at the healing garden. “We are the only Native urban response center for domestic violence in the state of Colorado.”

Generational traumas manifest

At the heart of Haseya’s healing garden is the awareness of the effects of generational trauma. 

“Generational trauma and historical trauma affected all of us. There’s nothing wrong with Native people, it’s because we are dealing with a systematic attempt of genocide to our people. This is all very recent,” Snowbird said. “This garden is a safe space to talk about that.” 

Starting in the mid-19th century, Native American children were forced to attend government or church-operated boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages, forced to cut their hair and were subjected to brutal practices of forced assimilation. 

The boarding school era was part of a long history of attempts by the U.S. to either kill, remove or “assimilate” Native Americans. It was not until 1978 that Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gave Native parents and tribes the power to keep children from being placed in off-reservation schools or adopted to non-Native families.

Near the end of the boarding school era, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 was passed, which resulted in a large number of Native Americans moving to urban areas, and Denver happened to be one of those places.

Snowbird said it is important to acknowledge the multigenerational impact of this history and incorporate it into programming for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

“Why did your grandmother act this way, and how has that impacted you, and how has that impacted your relationships? When people have had their culture removed and erased because of boarding schools, it makes them more susceptible to some of the situations that we’re in,” she explained.

Tags mark each plant in the garden with its name in five different indigenous languages. Monycka Snowbird believes that this healing garden is also an amazing space to practice some of the women’s stolen languages as an act of resistance. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Two paid interns work with Haseya. The Native women learn advocacy skills and build intense familiarity with the courts so they can support victims as their domestic violence cases move through the system. 

Shauna Jackson is a new intern at Haseya, and her grandparents were relocated to Denver after the boarding school era ended. “Being a Native woman makes this work so much more empowering because I’m helping other Native women, future Native women and ultimately myself.” 

Mechanisms for reporting, recovering from violence lacking

Haseya offers culturally-aligned services that Native victims of domestic violence and sexual assault rarely have access to, Snowbird said. 

In a Department of Justice study of more than 2,000 Native American and Alaskan Native women, 84% reported having experienced violence. The study, based on 2010 data and released in 2016, found that 56% of women experienced sexual violence, and of that group, more than 90% experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member. 

Experts warn that these numbers underestimate the number of women affected by violence, and the infrastructure for women to report and handle incidents is underfunded, making the work by organizations like Haseya even more critical. 

Just Beaded Things, is a group of indigenous women out of New Mexico who make Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) bracelets in order to bring awareness to the issue. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Violence Against Women Act in 1994 created the first federal legislation acknowledging domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes, including on reservations even though they are sovereign nations. VAWA for the first time also gave tribal nations the power to prosecute non-tribal members for domestic violence and rape. (Reauthorization of the act for five years passed the U.S. House this spring, but has not been taken up in the Senate.)     

“Before The Violence Against Women Act was signed, white men could go onto the reservation and rape a woman with no consequences,” Snowbird said.

Native women on reservations face murder rates more than 10 times the national average, Snowbird said. “There are over 6,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women, and those are only the ones we know about,” she added. 

No research has been done on rates of violence against American Indian women living in urban settings, even though 71% of Natives, 50% of whom identify as women, live in urban areas, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute. The organization calls this a “nationwide data crisis” in its most recent report, which notes there were 5,712 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in 2016, only 116 of which were logged in the U.S. Department of Justice missing persons database.

A safe space for ritual and healing. Kids are welcome, too. 

The Haseya healing garden may not have water or steady funding, but Snowbird is building new programming every day for Native women experiencing violence. 

“We want this garden to be a spot where our survivors can come and can decompress and not have to worry about all the other stuff that’s going on,” she said. “They can really focus on reconnecting back with the ground and having a safe space. Lots of studies show that gardening is beneficial for healing. Survivors can come, reconnect, access medicines and learn about traditional teachings, and have a safe space for kids.” 

Haseya currently has 36 women in the program. Organized activities include yoga, traditional language practice and medicinal plant teachings. Snowbird hopes to soon have an all-Native women sweat lodge, which will be the first in Colorado Springs. 

Christine Capra, a program manager and educator at The Horticultural Therapy Institute based in Denver, says there is healing power in gardens and working with the land. 

“These women have been in an environment that’s dark in feeling and space,” Capra said. “You open up their worlds to a garden space with wonderful sounds and smells and it allows the person to let go and allow for a long sigh.” 

Capra believes that purposeful activity such as harvesting, weeding, planting, deadheading are all metaphors for allowing people to let go. “There’s so much research that shows soil and digging helps heal and makes you feel better,” she said.

Monycka Snowbird’s daughter and grandson play in the Healing garden on a hot September day in Colorado Springs. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Snowbird and the staff at Haseya believe that the healing garden has been able to bring people together in a way that is more grounding and meaningful than coming together in a traditional office space. “The best way for survivors to heal is to connect to other survivors,” she said.

Haseya, in its two years of existence, has even helped one Native woman go from homelessness to homeownership.

As Snowbird, her daughter and grandson worked to move dirt around the garden, it was evident that this little garden on a hill was already helping Natives break down generational traumas, connect with the land and with each other. 

“I feel more Native communities and especially more Native women are getting in positions where they’re able to call public attention to these issues. There’s now more public awareness and accountability,” Snowbird said. “You can’t talk about the number of missing and murdered indigenous women and not have some response to those things. This is our response.”