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Self-Defense Classes Help Indigenous Women Face Kidnapping Threat

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Indigenous women are facing a crisis. In some communities, they are kidnapped and killed at a rate 10 times higher than the national average. That's according to research funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. Now Native American women are teaching each other to fight back. Quincy Walters of WBUR reports.

QUINCY WALTERS, BYLINE: Before the self-defense class starts, there's serenity. Shanda Poitra burned sage and smudged, asking any Native energies to be with her.

SHANDA POITRA: I just prayed in my mind, thanking the creator for opportunities and being with me today and helping me really get the point across.

WALTERS: The point - Native women have a basic right to protect themselves.

POITRA: OK. Hands by your ears, feet planted close to your butt. Ready? Go.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.

POITRA: Sit up. Kick.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.

POITRA: Very good.

WALTERS: This class, tailored for Indigenous women, is taking place in Everett, Mass., on this particular day. The women come from tribes in Massachusetts, North Dakota and El Salvador. They learn how to recognize threats, how to de-escalate them and how to strike attackers in the groins.

The class culminates with Poitra teaching women how to defend themselves against someone who tries to sexually assault them while they're sleeping. She's laying down on her stomach on the floor, and a man gets on top of her.

POITRA: OK. So I wait for his full body pressure to come on. So once his full body pressure's on me - OK?

WALTERS: While still on her stomach, Poitra lifts her right leg towards her chest and leverages all of that accumulated weight. And then...

POITRA: I heave up, knocking him off of me. So this is a very explosive move. It only works when all his weight is on me. Look. Look. Assess.

WALTERS: Recently, President Trump signed an executive order creating a task force that will look into why so many Native women's lives are disrupted or ended because of trauma. But Poitra, who's from the Turtle Mountain tribe in North Dakota, says she's not waiting on the government to save her people.

POITRA: Historically, the government hasn't been very good to Native people - to say the least. And so I just think it's time that we start empowering ourselves and start turning it around ourselves.

WALTERS: Poitra is a survivor of domestic violence. She took a self-defense class and was able to get out of her situation. Now she wants to help other women from different tribes across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #1: Ready?

(SOUNDBITE OF THUDDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No.

See. I - I feel like I...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You did good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You did it. Let's do it one more time.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #1: Like, tripping over myself...

WALTERS: Many who take the hours-long class not only find it physically grueling but emotionally taxing, like Kristin Wyman (ph), who teared up learning the techniques.

KRISTIN WYMAN: Almost as if my ancestors, my aunties and my grandmothers - everybody was with me that knows what our women face - and just to see the power in that moment of that scenario was real.

WALTERS: The class is designed to be taught to Native women by Native women. And Rachel Devenney (ph) tells the group that aspect is important to her.

RACHEL DEVENNEY: It is so empowering learning from other Native people. Connecting with you guys in that way is really amazing for me just as a Native woman.

WALTERS: Men take part in the class, as well. Two of them wear football padding and very reinforced helmets to kind of serve as human punching bags.

Michael Davis (ph) of the Turtle Mountain tribe, whose traditional name is Fire Spirit (ph), says he's volunteered because too many Native women have had their fire taken away through violence. He's seen it firsthand.

MICHAEL DAVIS: I have an auntie that could have definitely benefited. She might still be alive today if she would have known these tactics or that she could empower herself to say no, to step away or maybe fought back one time and deterred him and maybe make him think twice.

WALTERS: Davis says the class will hopefully help Native women preserve their fire.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #2: (Singing in non-English language).

WALTERS: At the end of the class, an instructor sings a song that memorializes the lives of all missing and murdered indigenous women. "We will always remember you, warrior women. You are in our hearts and in our minds."

For NPR News, I'm Quincy Walters.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #2: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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