Feminist History-Makers: “Because as women we are very sacred” –Tillie Black Bear

By Angela Griffore, Field Intern

It cannot be denied that the history of women often seems to be written with invisible ink. This is especially true for the Native women of this country, whose lives have been destroyed, deadened, muted, and traumatized by domestic violence.

The hidden truth is that Native American women are the target of violent battering, rape, assault, and homicide at a much higher rate than any other ethnic group of women or men in the United States. For more than 30 years, one survivor of domestic violence has worked endlessly to reclaim the sacredness of Native women. She is a survivor, lecturer, mother, grandmother, activist and advocate; she is Tillie Black Bear.

Tillie Black Bear is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation/Rosebud Sioux Tribe and an activist for the rights of women who are victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Black Bear has helped to found multiple organizations that provide services for abused women and children in South Dakota and around the nation, and often lectures on the subject to increase awareness.

Black Bear was a founding mother of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society (WBCWS), a non-profit organization that has been working with women, men, and children on the Rosebud Reservation and surrounding areas since 1977. In 1980, the WBCWS established the first women’s shelter in an Indian reservation in the U.S. The shelter is the oldest shelter for rape and domestic violence victims abused on Native American reservations, and the first shelter established for women of color in the country. Each year the shelter helps hundreds of women and children end the violence in their closest relationships.

In 1978, Black Bear was a founding mother of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). In addition to raising public awareness about domestic violence through advocacy and education programs, NCADV was instrumental in passing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Also in 1978, Black Bear formed the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

At the 1999 Millennium Conference on Domestic Violence in Chicago, Black Bear was one of 10 individuals recognized as one of the founders of the domestic violence movement in the U.S. Among several other prestigious awards, Black Bear has twice received an award from the U.S. Department of Justice for her work with crime victims, was a President George H.W. Bush “Points of Light” Honoree, and received the 2000 Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award from President Bill Clinton. In 2005, Black Bear accepted a Woman of Courage Award at the National NOW Conference. We continue to honor her enduring efforts to “reclaim the sacredness” of Native Women.

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