The Lakota martial arts teacher helping native women recover their strength

Christa Hillstrom

A self-defence model focused on rediscovering strength rather than putting up your guard is helping Native American women heal from sexual assault

Patty Stonefish can take down a fully-grown man by his finger. She makes it look graceful – a skilful flick of the wrist and her 100kg (16st) husband, Dereck, drops straight to his knees. Stonefish, a 26-year-old ‘joint-lock ninja’ of Lakota heritage from North Dakota, US, has been studying taekwondo for more than a decade. She knows dozens of complex hapkido (a Korean martial art) sequences that can immobilise opponents. But for demonstrations like the one she is doing tonight, she keeps it simple: single-action moves with names that women can remember in a panic, like grandma’s grip, jazz hands, and, in this case, single-finger takedown. Most people start timidly, afraid of pushing too hard, but Stonefish urges them to act like they mean it – anyone who apologises has to drop and do squats.

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Based in Fargo, North Dakota, Patty and Dereck are kicking off a series of self-defence workshops in a local community centre through their project, Arming Sisters/Reawakening Warrior. Their first group is small, with just three participants – two adults and a preteen girl. Dacia, 41, of North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Tribe, says she’d never heard of the programme before seeing the event advertised by the tribal centre.

Before launching into the hapkido moves, Patty and Dereck talk through the impacts of generational trauma in Native American communities. Dacia keeps coming back to the point that strikes her most: you have the power to change your own life.

Patty Stonefish. Image: Dan Koeck

Stonefish launched the original programme in 2013 to offer Native American women a self-defence model that was more about rediscovering strength than putting up your guard. Now, she and Dereck are trying to expand, launching workshops for men and boys on masculinity. Together, they have led more than 25 trainings around the US, from reservations to college campuses. In Stonefish’s words, the workshops focus on putting the ‘self’ back in self-defence. Many Western approaches put people on guard against the world, she says. “I wanted women to rediscover what’s powerful in themselves.”

Stonefish’s tattoo is of the Arabic word horreya, which means freedom. She spent years in Egypt during and after the Arab spring, watching women take their place on the frontlines of Tahrir Square. “I got it because, especially as a Native, freedom got ruined for me,” she says of the tattoo. “Egypt gave me the true definition back.”

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That means common self-defence principles – like verbalising boundaries and removing yourself from dangerous situations – are applied much more broadly. ‘Removing yourself’ could mean anything from crossing to the other side of the street, to leaving a relationship after years of abuse. And while you might come away with some useful tricks to thwart an attacker, the hope is that the physicality and communion will also rekindle a belief in yourself. “You are strong,” Stonefish tells women. “You are awake.”

Only individuals can re-empower themselves, she says: The ‘re’ in these sessions is central. When you realise you can take down a man like Dereck with one move, she notes, you begin to think, “I’m strong – I’m not only physically stronger than I thought, I’m emotionally stronger than I thought.”

I’m not only physically stronger than I thought, I’m emotionally stronger than I thought

Stonefish, who as a preteen survived an assault by two white men, long internalised her own trauma; she didn’t tell anyone for years. “I wouldn’t say it out loud even to myself,” she says. She hears similar stories during the talking circles that follow her workshops. Sometimes women, emboldened by one another, share their stories for the first time.

About a third of Native American women are raped during their lives, according to the US Department of Justice, and some activists think that number is much higher.

“Lots of women will tell you they don’t know anyone who hasn’t been raped,” says Sarah Deer, a Muscogee (Creek) professor at William Mitchell College of Law who has studied violence against Native American women for decades. And they are most likely to be assaulted by non-Native men. Eighty six per cent of sexual assaults against Native American women are perpetrated by members of other races, a fact that sets them apart from white, black, and Latina women. These rapes are rarely prosecuted: under federal law, tribes have no jurisdiction over non-Natives; federal prosecutors, who could charge attackers, usually don’t.

I wanted women to rediscover what’s powerful in themselves

A few hundred miles west of Fargo on the Fort Berthold Reservation, an oil boom began around 2009, attracting thousands of non-Native workers. Advocates became so concerned about Native women’s vulnerability to violence that a national Native American coalition petitioned the UN to investigate human rights abuses.

Stonefish’s expanded programme’s ‘warrior’ track encourages conversations among men and boys that challenge what Dereck calls the “colonial” approach to masculinity that emphasises glory through violence and war. Instead, Dereck explores a traditional view of warriors who care for their people, often at great sacrifice. “We try to show boys how we traditionally valued women as the core and pillars of our community.”

This is the second time Brande Redroad, an 11-year-old who is also from the Spirit Lake Tribe, has participated in the programme. Tonight, she came with her mother, Tanya. She’s vocal with her opinions, comfortably says no when she doesn’t want to try a particular move, and shows her strength easily when she does. “I always knew I had the power in me. I just didn’t know how to express it,” she says. “No one really showed me how to use it until now.” Her mother nods. “We’re going to be talking about it all the way home.”

First published by Yes! magazine

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