Founder Recalls Origin of WomenSpirit

DeeKoester(1)Dee Koester, Executive Director and Founder of WomenSpirit Coalition (WSC) was working at the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney’s office over a decade ago, when an idea kept entering her thoughts, distracting her, and keeping her awake at night.

As a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, with ancestry in the Quileute and Makah Tribes, and a survivor of domestic violence, Dee knew first-hand the need to eliminate violence against Native women. As a staff in the legal world, Dee also knew of the barriers to justice for Native women, and the complexities of prosecuting domestic violence perpetrators through the maze of tribal, city, county, state, and federal jurisdictions.

“There were months of restless nights,” recalls Dee. “I dreamt of forming a successful non-profit business to eliminate violence against Native women. I could see the need for a coalition of Tribal advocates, a large number of unified voices. There is power in numbers.”

Dee remembers envisioning a multitude of coalition members and allies, poised and ready to respond immediately to the epidemic of violence in Indian County. The vision was complex. The work to form the coalition would be arduous and lengthy. Planning ensued for four years (since 2002) and in 2006, Dee applied for federal funding to the Department of Justice, Office of Violence (OVW). Funding was granted, and WomenSpirit Coalition was realized.

This Coalition was different than Tribal Coalitions that were already operating. Tribal Coalitions were under the authority of their respective tribal governments. WomenSpirit, on the other hand, would be an autonomous, stand-alone business.

Public Policy (local, state and federal) development became a priority. As the Coalition became established, they worked with tribal advocates and federal partners to update their federal practices to specifically allow tribal domestic violence programs, those founded, staffed and supported by Tribal women and like-minded membership, to be eligible for increased OVW, VOCA and FPSVA funds. Between 2002 and 2005, WSC built its infrastructure and expanded its support network. It established and relied on the input and direction of an Advisory Committee made up of 20 para-professionals, attorneys, and tribal advocates.

In 2005, WSC received its first federal funding from Office of Victims of Crime (OVC). With this small infrastructure grant, WSC applied for 501c3 status and held its first domestic violence conference at Squaxin Island, Kamilche, WA.

Once funded (primarily through Office on Violence Against Women and in 2009 via Tribal Indian Governments — as a technical assistance provider to tribal governments and tribal programs) WSC has built a stellar reputation. “We are known for being supportive and empathetic to the myriad of challenges and barriers Native women face when seeking justice. We work to help them get needed services for themselves, and restore a sense of balance and health to their lives, children, families, and communities,” explains Dee.

In 2013, with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA), WSC and the 16 other Tribal coalitions were supported by Congress to receive annual Formula Funding. This was a major step in parity in funding. “Whatever funding non-Indian organizations get, Indian organizations should get,” says Dee. “This parity along with parallel development opportunities remain a top priority for the Coalition and Tribes in Washington State.”

Dee headshot
2015 marks the 13th year of operation for the WSC. The organization held its 8th Domestic Violence Conference/Sexual Assault Summit and 5th Envision Awards Luncheon on September 16 and 17 at the Little Creek Casino Resort.

The Summit was a success, bringing together many entities with the same focus: to eliminate violence against Native women. With the Summit concluded, Dee  says she will continue to do what she usually does, guided by the vision and mission of WSC, “We will continue to provide technical assistance to the 29 tribes in WA State to develop responsive domestic violence and sexual assault Tribal programs. We will be steadfast in our work to eliminate violence against Native women.”



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Coalition Conference Unites…


The Washington State Tribal Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Conference, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” held September 16 and 17, and put on by WomenSpirit Coalition, unified and inspired about 100 participants from statewide tribal communities in their efforts to bring liberty and justice to Native women and girls.

Tribal domestic violence staff and advocates, survivors, law enforcement, and state and federal officials joined the two-day conference at the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Little Creek Casino Resort, to hear presentations ranging from sex trafficking to protecting child sexual assault victims. Presenters provided up-to-date statistics and legal information as well as sincere passion and commitment to stop domestic violence and sexual assault against Native women and girls.


Envision Award Recipients

A highlight of the conference was the presentation of the Envision Awards to seven people for their outstanding advocacy work to eliminate violence against Native women in tribal communities:  April James (Swinomish), Sabrina Desautel (Colville), Marlo Quintasket (Swinomish), Cheryl Neskahi Coan (Dine’), Annie Forsman (Suquamish), and Tribal Court Judges Tom Tremaine and Cindy Smith, and US Attorney’s Office Victim Witness Liaison Debbie Lee.

Coalition Conference Unites...

Coalition Conference Unites…

Inner Journey of Healing

Caroline Felicity Antone (Tohono O’odham) gave a moving presentation that included slides of her early years growing up on the rural reservation southwest of Tucson. One of the first and last photos was of five children, Caroline and her four cousins, who were preschool and early elementary aged. Caroline dedicated her presentation to her cousins, who, along with Caroline, were all victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Caroline’s presentation was a visual, verbal and real-life statement that women can heal from abuse. As she talked, photos of her childhood merged with those of her current artwork and a close up of her face painted with the symbol of her Nation. She explained that, for years, she shunned her Nation and her origins, but healing from her abuse brought her back home, where she currently works to teach girls about self-respect and healthy relationships.

She shared the methods she uses to heal: She looks at her negative behavior patterns, and starts to act differently. She identifies people she admires and asks them how they developed their healthy behavior. “When we start healing, we want to be the best we can be, by changing habits and focus.”


Information and Inspiration

Presenters captivated attention from the beginning to the end of the conference with examples on how to improve tribal domestic violence and sexual assault prevention programs, to historic accounts of oppression, to personal statements of commitment:

  • “Domestic violence against Native women is unacceptable. We will not stop thinking about it, and innovating and working to stop it,” said Tessa Gorman, US Attorney’s Office Criminal Chief.
  • Bonnie Clairmont, Victim Advocacy Specialist, Tribal Law and Policy Institute, noted that in her informal research, she has not found one stand-alone traditional word for rape – linguists must string together a few traditional words to describe it. “My theory is, if you don’t have a name for it, it does not exist,” she said during her presentation on sex trafficking (and its history) in Indian Country.
  • “We can be ashamed (of domestic violence/sexual assault), we can deny it, or we can stop it,” said Caroline Felicity Antone.
  • “Sex trafficking is not a new problem. It is the oldest oppression. When you see women as an object, not as a human being, it is easier to harm them. Sex trafficking is happening everywhere …casinos, truck stops, at shelters, and in our communities. Native youth who are poor are extremely vulnerable,” said Bonnie Clairmont.
  • “If you give a dam (about child abuse in Indian Country) you can be part of the effort to stop it. Remember that the abuse is not the child’s only story. How can we turn it into a healing process?” said Geri Wisner, Tribal Prosecutor, Executive Director of Native American Children’s Alliance. Geri gave precise steps for legal teams and advocates to take to protect children during their trial experiences.
  • Sabrina Desautel, Colville Tribal Prosecutor and Detective Dave Labounty role modelled teamwork and unity of purpose. “We want to bring the human aspect into our jobs. We want to be trusted allies to the victims,” said Sabrina. “I believe I can effect change,” said Dave.
  • Tate London, Western District, Assistant US Attorney, said, “Domestic violence is a national problem that jeopardizes safe homes and safe communities.”


United in Purpose

Tate London was one of the final presenters of the conference, and wrapped it up appropriately by expressing much passion and commitment to eliminate domestic violence and sexual assault in Indian Country. One attendee from Quileute stood up to thank him, gave him her business card, and invited him to visit the smaller, rural tribes. “I would love to,” replied Tate.

Sabrina Desautel gave a “shout out” to Tate which inspired him to summarize the feelings of both presenters and attendees. “If you have a heart, how could you not be concerned about this problem? We care deeply about our communities.”