A Sliver of Change for Native American Women

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Artistically, the moon has a distinct set of associations — cycles, progress, mystique and femininity, all of which are captured in Dr. Carolyn Dunn’s directorial take on “Sliver of a Full Moon.”  Dr. Carolyn Dunn is the director of the American Indian Resource Center, as well as a lecturer, playwright, director, author and poet.

On Oct. 14, “Sliver of a Full Moon” was presented at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) annual conference in Tulsa, Okla.  The NCAI is the oldest and largest organization dedicated to representing tribal communities. According to the NCAI website, the organization’s annual conference is a meeting ground for native peoples with a focus on furthering tribal autonomy.

Dunn’s opportunity to present the play at the conference arose largely because of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing sovereignty for Native nations and protecting Native women and children. The NIWRC organized sponsors who made it possible to finance the production.

“[The play] tells such a powerful story about the importance of federal policy in the lives and safety of Native women,” said executive director of the NIWRC Lucy Simpson.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) initially passed in 1994 and provided money to the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, but it has been a slow process of protecting all Native communities. VAWA was revised in 2005 and again in 2013, adding more protection both times.

“What was unique about the passage of this act is that so many tribes were previously unable to enforce, well, the law,” Dunn said.

Prior to the revision of VAWA, crimes committed by non-Indians living on tribal land often went unreported. Dunn described how this lack of protection allowed for potential repeat offenses with no legal repercussions.

“There is a part in the play where one of the women is telling her story. Her non-Indian stepfather was abusive against her Indian mother and nothing could be done about it. She would go to file court reports on her mother’s behalf, and there were pages and pages and pages of these incident reports, all in eight point font, because they couldn’t fit the amount of information on a regular police report,” Dunn said.

Incidents like this were common throughout reservations, and they would have continued if it were not for women like the play’s five protagonists. Dunn refers to these women as “Stronghearts.” These women not only inspired the play, but are largely responsible for the implementation of the revised VAWA, Dunn said. Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle had a very direct relationship with these women.

“[Nagle] sat down with a tape recorder and interviewed about eight Native American women who were instrumental in getting this law passed. Women that were pounding the pavement not just in their own tribes but in Washington, D.C.,” Dunn said.

Dunn credits much of the play’s emotional power to its cast, as four of the seven characters portray themselves and tell their own stories. The remaining three characters are played by professional actors. One of the three professional actors, Kimberley Norris Guerrero, explained what it is like to work in such a poignant atmosphere.

“Working on something as emotionally raw and personal as SFM (Sliver of a Full Moon) is a gift to be given as an actor,” Guerrero said. “The reality of SFM burns up the ego as soon as it rears its ugly head, and we can be a pure channel for the story to flow through.”

Despite the victory in 2013, VAWA does not apply to all Native communities, only those that are federally recognized. Dunn said that more dispersed tribes are recognized as non-profit organizations, which are not protected by VAWA.

Considering the shortcomings of VAWA, Dunn’s production of “Sliver of a Full Moon” was performed on an appropriate stage — the NCAI represent tribal groups and seek to provide them with the legislative changes they desire.

“‘Sliver of a Full Moon’ makes the connection in a very emotional way for viewers to understand why sovereignty and safety go hand in hand, why safety for Native women needs changes and improvements in federal policy,” Simpson said.

Dunn said the incompleteness of VAWA is very much a part of the play’s message, a sentiment that rings true for the rest of the cast and crew.

“While the miraculous passing of VAWA this past spring brought much-needed light into the darkness of an unimaginably unjust situation, that light is equivalent to that of a ‘Sliver of a Full Moon,’” Guerrero said.

Editor’s note: This article was originally accompanied by an illustration in our Oct. 17 issue, but, due to issues of cultural sensitivity, it will not be included in our online edition.