Small red prayer ties. The smell of sage. Eileen Hudon and her friend Pam Gokey sit in Hudon’s apartment making hundreds of prayer ties to wrap around the Women’s Lodge at The Wall, the tent city of homeless people in south Minneapolis. Grounded in spiritual beliefs, Hudon assists women to see what their strengths are — she does not see the women as being the victims that society says they are. She helps each woman recognize her strength, her resiliency, her beauty.
Hudon was introduced to women’s power by female relatives on the White Earth Reservation. Since she was three years old, she watched the women help and care for other women. Hudon’s family’s house was the gathering place.
One night the women were talking about a non-Native batterer next door. Numerous times men would intervene, yet bring the abusive man back to sleep at the same house. The women gathered together in cultural response. Hudon’s great aunt called the man out at the local bar, telling him about the domestic violence he was perpetrating against his wife. “That’s humiliation — a culturally appropriate way to handle the situation.” He understood what would happen if it continued. He never hit his wife again.
Another time, a non-Native woman moved into the community. She had otherwise been ostracized in the town. Hudon and her brother were told to bring food to this family for several days, and be friendly with her daughter. At first the woman refused the food, but the Hudon family persisted.
Eventually the woman came to their house and opened up — she was a battered wife who had murdered her husband in self-defense. The impact that compassion had on the woman’s ability to trust in the community taught Hudon about the value of being non-judgmental.
In 1978, Hudon was on a gurney at Hennepin County Medical Center, herself battered. No shelter had room for a woman with four children. The Harriet Tubman Center had a hospital-based advocate who sat with her children. Hudon decided she would work with battered women — and so began her journey with her life’s work.
Hudon’s involvement in domestic violence situations has led to work with sexual violence, which is her focus on the Ogichidakwe (“Female Warrior”) Council. The Council began nine years ago when 10 women went to an Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Consortium workshop and one of the women asked, ‘Why can’t we be advocates?’ The answer was, ‘You can.’
The workshop attendees were encouraged to create training for grandmothers. The advocacy curriculum they developed covers topics selected by women at Katerie Residence and Minneapolis Indian Women’s Resource Center, and offers 40-hour advocacy training for three generations of women.
“We’re the ones who are going to make a difference in our community,” Hudon says. “Trying to make institutional changes is pretty much impossible, when our women are muted and invisible.”
Hudon has traveled several times to New Zealand, which enables women to stay much longer in shelters than is allowed in the U.S. “The history of genocide and oppression is so similar that I can hear our people, and see with greater objectivity there.”
At a small dinner in New Zealand, Hudon met an Ojibwe woman from Canada who had a hand drum. The woman told Hudon how the Sault St. Marie elders advised women to reclaim their voices by making hand drums and singing.
Hudon took that vision back to the Ogitchidakwe Council. Local water protector Sharon Day volunteered to teach women how to make hand drums.
As Hudon puts it, after that, “Everything we needed came. In a spiritual way, we had everything.”
Since then, about 150-200 men, women, and children have been a part of the drum group. Hudon says, “We are extended — like the family I grew up in.”
Eileen Hudon says the first big step is to change how community thinks about sexual violence.
“Those values will assist us once we have education and have the words to talk about sexual violence, including genocide by use of sexual violence,” she says, adding that we need to better recognize that there is value in helping each other.
Eileen Hudon explains the culturally appropriate response to violence in the Native community. “We don’t do advocacy in the way you typically think of advocacy. We do hand drum groups, and 40 hours of sexual assault advocacy. We raise awareness of sexual assault. We have a sweat lodge. We have a tipi. We use traditional medicine and traditional ways of healing.”
Hudon offers to talk to any woman who is looking for elder guidance, especially around domestic violence and sexual assault. She recommends these organizations:
• Minneapolis American Indian Center, maicnet.org
• MN Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, miwsac.org
• American Indian Family Center, St. Paul, aifc.net
• Sexual Violence Center, Minneapolis, 612-871-5111
• SOS Sexual Violence Services, Ramsey Country, 651-266-1000
• Sexual Assault Resource Service: 612-873-5832