The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Indigenous Women's Experiences of Violence Across Their Lives: A Critical Ethnography

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Catherine E. Burnette, PhD, Assistant Professor, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
Background and Purpose:

Violence against indigenous Women (IW) is a disproportionate and epidemic problem, which has drawn national and international attention.  Despite the pressing need to ameliorate the disproportionate rate that IW experience violence, there is no known research addressing violence against IW in the Southeastern region of the United States, nor any critical ethnographies investigating this problem, regardless of region.  Therefore, there is little understanding about the processes and complexities of IW’s experiences of violence.  Especially little is known about the localized experiences of IW in the Southeast. 

Critical ethnographies make paramount the patterns of power and domination that perpetuate inequality and oppression across generations (Carpecken, 1996).  Because power and domination are especially relevant to situations of violence and the oppressions experienced by indigenous peoples, a critical ethnography is needed.  Therefore, the purpose of this critical ethnography was to understand the processes and context of violence against IW in the Southeast.  The overarching research question was:

  • How do IW in the Southeast perceive violence across their lives?


Using the critical ethnography delineated by Carpsecken (1996), with rigorous validity requirements being met, the following cyclical research stages were conducted by living near a Southeastern tribe over the course of the summer of 2012:

1.)   Compiling the primary record, which included 28 participant observation sessions with indigenous community members to understand patterns of interaction.

2.)   Preliminary reconstructive analysis included pragmatic horizon analysis to understand the implicit and explicit meanings of communicative acts embodied in data.

3.)   Dialogic Data generation included 29 life history interviews with women who experienced violence across their lives. 

Results:  A lack of Safety Across IW’s Lives 

An intergenerational pattern of violence emerged from the reconstructive analysis of life history interviews and participant observation.  To delineate this process of violence, a lack of safety across the lives of IW was illuminated as 80% of IW experienced abuse in their upbringing.  This abuse included physical, emotional, sexual abuse, and/or witnessing family violence.  Experiencing abuse set the stage for a precarious young adulthood, where women were at risk for becoming involved in unhealthy relationships and for early pregnancy.  The dangerous trajectory continued into adulthood in processes of pursuit, progression, severity, self-sufficiency, and breaking out of violent relationships. Tactics of power and control included domination, threats, psychological abuse, using children, and controlling resources.

Conclusions and Implications: 

Despite national and international attention to violence against IW in their adulthood, this study revealed that violence tends to begin long before adulthood.  Indeed, IW from the Southeast experienced a lack of safety across their lives.  To provide for the protection of IW, it is important to understand the processes of violent relationships holistically as they are perpetuated across generations and across lives.  Contextual factors that may perpetuate violence include devaluing beliefs about IW, tolerance of violence, and ineffective policy, criminal justice, and social services systems.  Comprehensive interventions must incorporate these interacting and complex factors.


Carspecken, P. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research, a theoretical and practical guide. New York: Routledge.