Photo: Amber Hunt/AP Photo

The incidence of domestic violence among Native American women is twice as high as the rest of the population.

Cherrah Giles was 16 when the abuse started. A push here, a shove there from her high school boyfriend. Though she sometimes thought about tapping resources for domestic violence victims, she stayed with him and eventually they were married.

The abuse continued, but Giles remained quiet. Then one night, she recalled, her husband came home drunk, pinned her down and started to choke her. He didn’t stop until one of her four children, a 7-year-old boy, woke up to the sound of violence and turned on a hallway light. Then he passed out from the alcohol.

“I remember thinking: ‘He could have killed me. He’s so drunk that he doesn’t even know what he did,’” Giles, 39, said.

Still, she didn’t leave right away. It was several more months before she developed the courage to file for divorce and move out.

Looking back on that period, Giles wonders why she never called a helpline or sought a protective order. The roots of her inaction, she believes, were sowed in fear. A member of the Muscogee Creek tribe, Giles remembers thinking there might not be anyone who could understand what she was going through.

“In my head, I still didn’t equate teen dating violence. But I think if I went somewhere and saw something that said a hotline for Native women, I probably would have called it sooner,” she said. “I didn’t even realize our tribe had a program back then. I wouldn’t have known to call.”

Today, Giles is chairwoman for the board of directors at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), and she hopes a new national hotline tailored specifically for Native Americans will help other women escape similar situations.

A partnership between the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the StrongHearts Native Helpline launched in March and supports tribal communities across the United States.

“One of the things we noticed was that statistics on violence against Native women in Indian communities, they are staggeringly high, but [the National Domestic Violence Hotline was] not receiving as many calls through the hotline as would go with the statistics,” said Lucy Simpson, executive director of NIWRC.

More than half of Native American women have been assaulted or raped and/or experienced physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, according to the 2016 National Institute of Justice Research Report.

Overall, about one in five women reported experiencing rape at some point in their life, according to the Centers for the Disease Control. Approximately 1 in 20 women experienced sexual violence other than rape, such as being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, or non-contact unwanted sexual experiences.

Advocates realized that Native women wanted a number to call, but often felt like the person on the other end of the phone might not understand where they were coming from. “We realized there was this big gap in services,” Simpson explained. That’s when the idea for a Native-focused hotline was born.

StrongHearts has two advocates answering calls from all over the country. The staff understands Native American issues, including topics like tribal sovereignty and law, and they provide immediate support, crisis intervention, personalized safety planning and referrals to culturally-appropriate services.

Many of the callers are from rural tribal communities, where the nearest shelter may be two or three hours away, said Simpson. “Most often they are very geographically isolated. They’re not necessarily close to any municipalities that have a lot of services available.”

A lack of law enforcement is another issue in such remote areas. NIWRC’s main office is in Lame Deer, Montana, on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. At any one time, she said, two police officers may be on duty for the entire 40-square-mile reservation.

“If there is a car accident on one side of the reservation and an urgent domestic violence call on the other end of the reservation … there’s often times just not a law enforcement officer to respond,” Simpson added.

Also, in small communities where people know each other, there’s added anxiety around being spotted going to the local domestic violence program. “There’s a fear of being identified,” Simpson said.

Jurisdictional issues are another hurdle—whether state, tribal or federal authorities should be notified. With StrongHearts, women know they are speaking to someone familiar with such nuances.

Caroline LaPorte, senior policy advisor on Native Affairs at NIWRC, said one barrier to reaching out is trust. “It’s very much the ongoing narrative we have with the non-Native world. That is a huge benefit of the helpline. When you call, you know you are speaking with someone you can trust and someone who understands the unique history.”

Giles said that if she had known there was a helpline for Native women, she may have gotten help sooner. “To have a national hotline, maybe I would have left sooner. Maybe I would have had a safety plan,” she said. “That’s the hope and that’s the intent.”