Monday, December 6, 2010

Irene Bedard: The Open Secret of Domestic Violence

You may be familiar with Irene Bedard, as the voice of Disney's Pocahontas, or perhaps in her starring role in the television miniseries “Into the West”.What you may not know about her, is that she is a survivor of domestic violence.  The following is an excerpt from a letter written by her family.

Irene moved to Alaska in an attempt to flee a horrific domestic violence situation. For 17 years, she suffered abuse, both sexually and physically, at the hands of the one person she should have been able to trust implicitly, her husband. The years of abuse left not only her body, but also her spirit and mind, battered. The abuse had been so pervasive, her health began to decline, rapidly. Her doctor began tests to detect cancer, unaware of the abuse. As heinous as the physical and mental tolls were, they were not the only price my aunt had to pay.

Her abusive husband kept her under financial control, taking her earnings, and forbidding her to work in her career field, unless he specifically approved the project. This had a detrimental effect on an otherwise promising career. As I stated earlier, my aunt starred in two important productions highlighting the plight of Native Americans. She intended to use her celebrity to bring light to the rich and beautiful heritage of all Native Americans, and Alaskan Natives, in particular. However, her husband’s control and abuse made this impossible. She could not work with bruises on her skin, and his constant presence at her work sites made not only Irene, but also others in the cast and crew uneasy. This cost my aunt jobs. No one wanted to have her husband on the set, and he would not allow her to work without him being there. While the loss of income was financially devastating for my aunt, the loss of her platform to share her heritage with the world was even more so.

As in most domestic violence cases, not only did my aunt’s husband hurt her physically, and caused her to lose her career, he aliened from her from family, friends, and fans, her support system. He had to have total control over her and their child. It was because of her son, Quinn, that she did not leave. She felt she had to endure all of the abuse for his sake. If she left her abuser, he would follow her, and, she feared, use and possibly harm their son to force her to come back to him. She felt ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated, and powerless. It was only through an intervention by her family that she began to regain her spirit to defend herself, and make a better life for her son. She felt broken. But, with the love, encouragement, and support of her family, she felt there was hope for her and her son. With the help of her family, she moved to Alaska, where she could get treatment for her health, and counseling for herself and her son.

She filed for a domestic violence protective order, and for divorce. She hired an attorney in Alaska, and an attorney in Ohio. Her attorneys told her that she could obtain jurisdiction in Alaska if, in fact, she could prove that domestic violence had occurred. She gathered her evidence, and found her witnesses. All the while, she was still being pursued and harassed, through her son, by her abuser, and even by the law. The very laws that are supposed to protect her were threatening to take her child away from her, if she did not return him to Ohio. But, she still held on to hope that this would work even though deep down she was terrified that she would lose the one and only good thing that came out of her marriage, her son. The Ohio lawyer told her, since she had filed for divorce first, and because this was a domestic violence case, by Ohio state laws jurisdiction would fall in Alaska. She went to trial, in Alaska, to prove the domestic abuse. She had to tell her story and relive the 17-year nightmare, again. When it came it to her abusers turn, he backed out of testifying, and offered her a deal that sounded too good to be true. He acknowledged the domestic violence, but stated that he would only stop contesting the domestic violence, with certain stipulations. Her lawyer explained the stipulations to her and said it would be a good thing because he would have a domestic violence conviction and she was on a limited time frame. She listened to his advice and accepted the stipulations. However, the attorney made a huge mistake, which would cost her greatly. The Alaska lawyer did not read the stipulations thoroughly. One of the stipulations of the agreement is the finding of no facts in the domestic violence case. This gave the protective order no weight in the Ohio courts. Additionally, it moved jurisdiction of the case to Ohio. This was not in her best interest at all. Ohio laws do not offer the same protection for domestic abuse victims and their children as Alaska laws do. Clearly, these concessions were not in her best interest, and his incompetence hurt her case. She even heard him admit to this, later, to her abusers attorney, none the less. The Ohio courts ordered her to come back to Ohio, with her son, or face a Contempt of Court charge, which would have put her in jail, and left her son defenseless and living with an abusive father. Without the protection of the Alaska courts, Irene had little choice but to move back to Ohio, and back to her abuser. Again, the abuser has her isolated from her family, friends, fans, and even work. Again, she is living in fear. Again, she cannot freely pursue the career of her choice. Again, she has to give what money she does earn to her abuser. It is abundantly clear why she was afraid to leave in the first place. Everything she feared about the legal system has happened.

This story caught my attention for two reasons: the high rate of violence that Indigenous women live with and the fact that society has a tendency to believe that domestic violence is not something that happens to women with a high profile, though we have seen numerous examples over the years. Domestic violence can happen to women of any racial background, regardless of class status, but when it comes to Indigenous women, a history of colonialism, combined with racism and gender helps to make it extremely pervasive.  
Native American women experience the highest rate of violence of any group in the United States. A report released by the Department of Justice, American Indians and Crime, found that Native American women suffer violent crime at a rate three and a half times greater than the national average. National researchers estimate that this number is actually much higher than has been captured by statistics; according to the Department of Justice over 70% of sexual assaults are never reported.

As women of color, Native Americans experience not only sexual violence, but also institutionalized racism. Alex Wilson, a researcher for the Native American group Indigenous Perspectives, found a high level of tension between law enforcement and Native American women, who report numerous encounters where the police treated the women as if they were not telling the truth.  
Native American women also stand a high risk of losing their children in instances of physical and sexual abuse. The women often will stay with abusive husbands in order to keep their children. In one case, a woman was beaten by her husband so badly that he broke bones and she was forced to seek refuge in a domestic abuse shelter. The husband, through support of his tribe, was able to gain custody of their two children. He continued his violent behavior, at one point, throwing their two-year-old child across the room. The woman was never able to regain custody.  (source)
Because Indigenous women are specifically devalued, there is not much pressure upon law enforcement to ensure their safety. These are women that have been experimented upon medically, sterilized without consent, murdered, and eviscerated and yet they are not even able to receive the mockery of concern that a White woman receives when she is attacked.  It is impossible to eliminate the history of colonialism when examining this situation.  

When First Nations women serve the efforts of colonialism, they are constructed as Indian Princesses, and when they ignore or resist the colonial project, they are often referred to as lazy squaws, who exist simply to prey upon the system. That the desire has been to eradicate Indigenous people and steal their property is conveniently often obscured or outright ignored, in many discussions on how they interact with social organizations like the police force, or the legal system.  If an organization is predicated in the belief that Whiteness is the superior entity and exists to reify rules or laws written by White people, how is it possible for people of colour or more specifically, Indigenous women to ever achieve equality? We must consider that the government has a history of lying to Indigenous people and yet government agencies are who they are forced to rely upon for support.  The mistrust in government agencies is certainly well placed and yet few actual policies exist to perform community outreach and stem the tide of violence.  It is always easier to ignore the victim when the violence perpetrated against them emboldens and empowers patriarchy and the post colonial project.

Behind the voice of Pocahontas, is a woman crying out in pain.  Because Indigenous women represent one of the most marginalized groups of women in North America, to uplift the status of women, it is absolutely necessary to counter the stigmatizations and the violence that they face. Where are the ongoing campaigns by women's organizations to combat this?  Instead of unity, it has largely been left to Aboriginal women to fight and resist by whatever means necessary to oppose those who seek to eradicate them.  The ground is drenched in their blood and every step we take on their land without acknowledging this, makes us all culpable.

Irene is fighting this battle and she needs our help.   If you are unable to send in a donation to help her fight for custody of her children, a letter to the following politicians would go a long way.

U.S. Senator-Elect Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
http://murkowski.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=EMailLisa
202-224-6665
 
U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
(202) 224-2315
Ohio Toll Free: 1-888-896-OHIO (6446)

U.S. Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio)

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D)

Ohio Governor Elect John Kasich (R)
U.S. Congressman Steven Austria (R-Ohio)
Fax: 202-225-1984

Ohio State Senator Chris Widener (R)

Ohio State Representative Robert Hackett (R)
House District 84-Greene County
Phone: (614) 466-1470
Fax:
(614) 719-6984

Ohio State Representative Jarrod Martin (R)
House District 70 –Greene County
district70@ohr.state.oh.us
Phone:
(614) 644-6020
Fax: (614) 719-3970

Ohio State Representative Peggy Lehner
Ohio House District 37-Montgomery County
district37@ohr.state.oh.us
Phone: (614) 644-6008
Fax: (614) 719-3591


One voice on its own has little effect, but several voices, all screaming the same message, is hard to ignore.