How One Woman Is Empowering Native American Women Through Self-Defense

In a culture where nearly half the women have experienced violence, a different tack is needed.

As a 12-year-old, Patty Stein Stonefish, a Lakota Sioux, had gone outside one night in her hometown for a short walk and a smoke. She had no idea she would soon be the victim of physical and sexual assault in her hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota. Just as she had decided to head back home, she heard a truck coming. A group of boys called her a “squaw,” said they would kill her, chased her down, cornered her, sexually molested and beat her, and left her on the streets.

“It wasn’t my first exposure to racism,” says Stonefish. “But it was my first exposure to sexual assault. I didn’t find out that I was part native until later in life because my family knew what type of trouble it might bring. Growing up in North Dakota, you don’t talk about being Native American.”

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that as many as 46 percent of indigenous women in the United States have faced physical abuse and sexual assault during their lives. At least a third will, at some point in her life, experience the violence and trauma of rape. Needless to say, that’s extremely horrifying.

In hopes of teaching women how to empower themselves against the threat of violence, Stonefish founded Arming Sisters, a self-defense program for Native American women that will also be the crux of a recently funded documentary film, also titled “Arming Sisters.” In two days of training, the program will teach indigenous women around the United States 10 self-defense moves based on body pressure points. All of the moves are designed to be easy enough for people of any age to execute in close quarters.

The real effect of the training, though, may be psychological empowerment. Stonefish says during the training the women will also have access to an on-site therapist, should they want to talk about their experiences.

“It’s scary to reach out for help,” says Stonefish. “A lot of people won’t seek out a therapist. But if someone is right there in front of them, it might be a different story.”

Stonefish says she didn’t talk about her own attack until six years after it had happened. But in the interim, she enrolled in martial arts classes which, after building up her physical strength, finally gave her the courage to start speaking up.

“My coach always had this poster in the gym that said ‘Have No Fear.’ It’s okay to be afraid or scared -- and the first part of that was saying it out loud to myself.” From there, Stonefish has started telling her story to other girls she’s come across, especially in her own program. Arming Sisters, Stonefish says, will be a place where women can tell their stories, and where Stonefish has found healing telling her own.

Though the program is dedicated to Native American women, Stonefish had the idea to start Arming Sisters while she was abroad in Egypt, teaching self-defense courses to women during the Arab Spring. In Egypt, she says she couldn’t walk more than a block without being barraged with cat calls.

“With the revolutions, there was a huge revitalization of art and culture and people weren’t afraid to speak anymore, about anything,” said Stonefish. “Sadly, one of the consequences of that movement was that women who found their voice became targets of sexual assault. Overwhelming amounts of sexual assault ranging from cat calls to random groping all the way to gang rape.”

After several years in Egypt, she was contacted by two documentary filmmakers, Willow O'Feral and Brad Heck, who wanted to tell her story, alongside different aspects of Native Women’s rights projects and how messages are generally conveyed to the U.S. public about Native American struggle. The decision to put her organization on display and in the hands of a couple that aren’t Native American, however, wasn’t an easy one.

“At first I was really skeptical about it because they’re white,” says Stonefish. “And every documentary I’ve seen so far about Native Americans is like poverty porn. It makes us look like sorry, good-for-nothing alcoholics.”

But through meetings with the filmmakers and an agreement to set up a board of advisers for the film -- all of whom are Native American -- Stonefish agreed. And of course, the film would be beneficial to further her own message -- that these women are not to be pushed around.

“I’m hoping women watch it and see other women’s stories and it will help them understand that there’s a lot of us out there that have experienced attacks and they’re not alone,” says Stonefish.

The filmmakers will live with Stonefish and her husband for more than eight months, starting this summer, and will be traveling with her to various sites on the Northern Prairie to document her work.

“I want people to see the rhetoric that’s being pushed on Natives all the time,” says Stonefish. “You see all these impoverished places and yes, poverty among Natives is rampant. But at the same time, there are a lot of us trying to heal so that our people can come back together. I’m tired of seeing that same stereotype.”