Women are crucial to the health of a community, and when harm comes to them, the effects go far beyond the victims themselves.
That’s why Lucy Rain Simpson, who is part Navajo, chose to head up a national nonprofit that works with tribes to combat domestic abuse.
Simpson, executive director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center in Lame Deer, likens the health of a community to a well-tended fire in a tepee.
“Part of my Navajo belief is the fire is at the center of a home,” Simpson said. “You take care of the fire, and everything good extends out from there.”
Like the fire, Native women are at the center of a home and a community. That’s especially true, she said, because so many women head single-parent households.
When women are harmed or disrespected, everything falls apart in the home and outside of it.
“If we can come back to a place where we respect women and hold them in a place that’s considered sacred,” it will begin to help Native communities regain their health, she said.
As it stands, one in three women in Indian Country will be raped in their lifetime, a statistic Simpson calls horrific. It has special meaning to her because she has one daughter and her sister has two.
They’re still young, 10, 11 and 12, Simpson said. She hopes that changes will come so no young girls ever have to grapple with violence in their lives.
“It should really be a priority of everybody,” she said. “And the problem is those are issues people rarely want to talk about.”
Simpson’s calling is a natural extension of her upbringing by two involved parents who encouraged her to work for the greater good. Both parents saw the value of a good education.
Simpson's father, a retired physician, worked for women’s reproductive rights. And her mother, who taught her the value of the tribe’s culture and traditions, also worked as an attorney for the Navajo Tribe and served as a justice in the tribe's Supreme Court.
“And so growing up with those influences really got me to thinking about the value of justice, the value of an individual’s contribution as part of a community and really feeling an obligation to do whatever we can,” she said.
Simpson earned an undergraduate degree from Stanford University. She returned home to work for the tribe’s legislative council and came to understand the importance of law and policy.
That pushed her to go to law school at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where her primary interest was natural resources and environmental issues. She returned to Arizona to work for the tribe until her husband, Robert Simpson, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, asked her to relocate to his homeland in 2001.
In Lame Deer, Simpson did private legal work for a few years. Then the couple and their two children, a daughter, 12, and a son, 9, moved to Helena in 2005, where Simpson went to work as a staff attorney for the Indian Law Resource Center.
The Helena center is a nongovernmental organization that works globally to protect indigenous rights.
“Working there I began making larger connections to all of these issues recognizing human rights for Indian people: from the right to clean water to tribal self-determination,” she said.
And while she was there, Simpson also began working on the issue of violence against Native women.
“I came to the point where I began to believe that Native women, and women in general, are the backbone of the community,” she said. “Whether they’re stay-at-home moms or have a career, they really do form the backbone of a society.”
Simpson was one of several women who worked to create the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and then the board of directors asked her to become its executive director. The organization incorporated as a nonprofit in 2011, with its main offices in Lame Deer.
Its mandate and funding comes out of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, which, in part includes the creation of resource centers that provide education, awareness, training and research to end family violence.
Simpson’s organization focuses on the Native component of that mandate. That includes providing technical assistance and training to tribes.
She acknowledges that many of the problems tribes face, such as drug and alcohol abuse and sexual and physical abuse, stem from the historical trauma Native people have suffered. She cites government policies that sought to terminate tribes, eradicate culture and send Native children to boarding schools.
Healing is still needed to help tribes deal with the accumulated pain that came out of those policies, she said.
“At the same time, I strongly believe in accountability,” Simpson said. “That’s why when we do so that violence, the perpetrators need to be held accountable.”
What that looks like may vary from tribe to tribe, Simpson said. But what is certain is that healing will be needed for everyone involved.
“That means not just the woman who’s experienced the abuse,” she said. “It also means the child who may have witnessed the abuse and the abuser, bringing them all back to wellness.”