WomenSpirit Coalition staff members include, from left, Michelle Williams, Dee Koester, Diane Good (in back), Cheryl Neskahi Coan, Erin Lopez Neskahi and Laura Fierro. (Elijah Sussman/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

WomenSpirit Coalition staff members include, from left, Michelle Williams, Dee Koester, Diane Good (in back), Cheryl Neskahi Coan, Erin Lopez Neskahi and Laura Fierro. (Elijah Sussman/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

WomenSpirit Coalition steps into new phase

Multi-service indigenous support organization to host open house

SEQUIM — More than four in five American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence in their lifetimes, and more than one in three have experienced violence within the past year, according to a 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Justice.

WomenSpirit Coalition (WSC) is a Sequim-based tribal coalition which offers technical assistance, consultation and trainings on domestic violence, sexual assault, date violence, stalking and sex-trafficking issues, serving the 29 federally recognized Washington tribes.

“If you’re in an area where there aren’t tribal organizations like ours, then you have to rely on mainstream organizations, and they may not be aware of the nuances and practices that go in to making a culture,” said Dee Koester, WSC’s executive director and a Lower Elwha tribal member who founded the coalition in 2002.

“Natives are more willing to go to a native organization than a non-native organization.”

WomenSpirit Coalition has met the statutory demands required to be a tribal coalition. Though it has secured continuous non-competitive funding, many of the tribal programs it serves do not.

Funding for advocacy programs is highly competitive, and for some smaller tribes, that can mean lapses in service on unfunded years.

The coalition will host a ribbon cutting and open house from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. June 6 for its most recent expansion, the Sayu’? X Wey Family Safety Center at 530A N. Fifth Ave. This is an opportunity, WSC representatives said, for the community to hear more about the coalition’s work, tour the space and witness a shawl ceremony.

Sayu’? X Wey means “the breath that moves one forward in life” in Coast Salish. The center will host advocate trainings, relevant tribal meetings and allow for clients to fill out forms and job applications in an up-to-date computer lab.

WomenSpirit Coalition has maintained a low profile over the years because of the sensitive nature of its work, staff said. But with the inauguration of its new enterprise, it is opening itself up to being more known in the community.

“I’m kind of torn between wanting the public to know and wanting to keep it quiet,” Koester said.

As the organization expands its operation, leaders have decided the value of reaching someone in need who might not otherwise know of their presence outweighs remaining quiet.

The advocate role is essential in supporting survivors, staff said, as advocates walk through the processes of response and recovery with each individual. Koester said that, for many survivors, their advocate becomes the most important person in their life.

Beatriz Arakawa, family advocate manager for the Lower Elwha Tribe, saw family members affected by violence and experienced it in her own life. That personal connection deepens her resolve for the work, she said.

“Nationwide, domestic violence is really a big issue, not just a tribal issue,” Arakawa said. “The statistics say that it’s especially (an issue) within the tribal nations. They are the people most significantly affected by domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Arakawa has known Koester for more than 20 years and received advocate trainings from WomenSpirit Coalition. She sees Koester as a mentor in her work.

Arakawa has been the family program advocate at the Lower Elwha Tribe for 24 years, and she sees an average of 35 unique cases per year. She serves many of those clients consistently over an extended period of time.

Advocates are trained to sit with survivors and to see them through a number of essential processes: providing medical transportation, securing safe housing, purchasing reliable transportation, helping with the filing of restraining orders, finding an indigenous counselor, or a counselor with indigenous cultural training, and more.

An advocate brings themselves to their work with the intent of bearing witness and offering support to their client in a time that is emotionally rife, potentially dangerous, and complicated for a survivor, she said. They strive to facilitate a safe aftermath and a well-supported path toward recovery.

Arakawa also organized a Red Dress Day Walk on May 3 in Port Angeles to raise awareness for missing and murdered indigenous people.

Arakawa said her work is not limited to tribal members but to anyone in the community experiencing abuse.

________

Elijah Sussman is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of newspapers Peninsula News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at elijah.sussman@sequimgazette.com.

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