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Leaders in the Field of Domestic Violence: Sandra Pilgrim Lewis

by StrongHearts Native Helpline

StrongHearts Native Helpline features “Leaders In The Field of Domestic Violence” and is honored to introduce Sandra Pilgrim Lewis, culturally-specific project manager for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Division of Victim Services in Lansing, Michigan.

Summers on Pine Ridge

Sandra Pilgrim Lewis was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Her mother is Lakota and her father is African American. Her Unci (Grandmother) lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where she spent every summer as a youth, learning and loving her culture.

Unci, meaning grandmother in the Lakota language, was a respected elder in the community, a caregiver and an advocate for victims of domestic and sexual violence. She was a strong Native woman who impressed upon Sandra the importance of having a voice in the community and to speak for others when others could not speak for themselves.

Living The Dream Of Her Ancestors

“You will grow up and be a warrior. Your voice will be used as the weapon and you will sing the songs of our women,” her Grandmother explained as she called Sandra by her Spirit name, “Monto Olona Cikla” meaning Little Song Bear. And, it was no coincidence that her Auntie named her, "Sandra" meaning helper of mankind.

“It’s been the driving force of my life,” said Sandra, adding that from birth she had been given a purpose. She was to be a warrior singing the songs of Native women and helping mankind. With her Grandmother and Auntie to inspire her, she embarked upon living the dream of her ancestors.

Learning About Activism And Racism

As a child Sandra remembers that Native women were being beaten and raped on the reservation. They would visit her Grandmother, who they trusted would help. Unci was more than a soothing voice of support, she was an activist who spoke out against violence perpetrated on Native women.

“It was 1953. I was just a little girl when the National Congress for American Indians (NCAI) was set to meet in Denver Colorado. I remember all the women beading and making things to sell so they could buy bus tickets,” said Sandra, who accompanied her Grandmother to the conference.

“My Grandmother explained to me that our faces weren’t white and so we had to sit at the back of the bus. I didn’t care because I thought it was fun. It was bumpy.” said Sandra. “And, since our faces were brown we couldn’t use the bathroom either. We had to use the woods.”

Sandra witnessed the determination and stamina it took to seek justice. She absorbed the courage of her Grandmother and understood the importance of community support and traditional healing in Native culture. Despite the barriers, the voices of Native women suffering domestic and sexual violence would not be stifled. It was the beginning of a life Sandra dedicated to advocacy.

A Home For Her Spirit

During an era of obstacles, Sandra lived and worked in the Detroit, Metro area where she married and raised a family. She developed a skill set working among sovereign nations that included the Tribal, state and federal governments. For a time (2000-2006), she lived and worked in Alaska where advocacy was direly needed.

“I was executive director of a mainstream domestic violence program and part-time at Mount Edgcumbe, Sitka, Alaska,” explained Sandra who was later recruited by the Easter Seals to help them merge their in-home health care services for Native cultures in Anchorage. “I was adopted by the Kiksadi Clan of the Tlingit Tribe in Sitka. It is the home of my spirit. I’d have stayed in Alaska for the rest of my life until my daughter became sick and needed me [back in Michigan].”

Racial Injustice Comes Full Circle

In 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States held that Tribal courts have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. (Oliphant vs Suquamish) The impact was no less than devastating. Thirty-five years later, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 recognized the Tribes' inherent power to exercise "special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction" over non-Native defendants involved in domestic violence and protection order violations.

“With the passage of VAWA 13, I saw it come full circle. It’s not all there, but we’ve come a long way,” said Sandra. “When we get discouraged and think that nothing has changed, we have to look back and see who’s shoulders we are standing on. We’ve gained a lot of privilege from those women [who came before us].”

Retirement and Awards

In 2014, Sandra was the newly retired Executive Director of Shelter, Inc. (Alpena, Michigan) when she was awarded the Visionary Voice Award by the National Sexual Violence Resouce Center in recognization of nearly 30 years of advocating for service with dignity, social justice and ending oppression.

In 2021, she was awarded the Tillie Black Bear Memorial Award by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center for her work in Indian Country. This award came after the groundbreaking work she had done working for the State of Michigan.

Culturally-Specific Program Management

The same year she retired, Sandra stepped into a new role as the culturally-specific program manager for the Michigan Department of Human and Health Services (MDHHS). She explained that departments were merging and access to funding streamlined.

“All victim services came under one division under Debi Cain, director of the Division of Victim Services at MDHHS. I was the nagging voice at the right time and Debi Cain was ready to listen,” said Sandra who understood that she needed to break down barriers between the Tribes and the State of Michigan.

Mismatched Shoes

In 2015, Sandra addressed the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board. She was determined to create awareness about Tribal culture and advocate for the inclusion of Michigan Tribes.

“I wore two mismatched shoes - a moccasin and a shoe because we are always walking in two worlds,” Sandra told the board. “My heart lives in Indian Country, but I walk in the western world because I have to. All that has been taken from us and all that we still are [is ignored]. We don’t just get to be who we are, but you do. If we don’t walk in your world on your terms, you don’t honor who we are. It’s important to recognize our differences; that we have a culture of our own and we have ways of doing things.”

Information Gathering

“We needed to do talking circles with women, elders and young women to find out what it looks like to provide culturally honoring sexual assault services,” said Sandra who assembled a team of Tribal experts in the field and facilitated information gathering sessions to include Tribal and mainstream representatives.

“It was a disaster. Mainstream people were angry. They felt it was their money that would be eliminated,” said Sandra, whose team of experts decided it was best to just meet with Tribal representatives. The Tribes wanted things to be different and understood that the board needed to be educated on Native culture.

“Education is a powerful tool,” said Sandra. “We [educated them] virtually and incorporated a play written by Mary Kathryn Yagel: Sliver of a Full Moon. The play interweaves testimony from Native women abused by non-Native men with an account of the legal battle to reauthorize VAWA2013. It’s now an education requirement for all Michigan advocates.”

Culturally-Specific Funding

Ultimately, Michigan decided that any new money would be to meet culturally specific needs. So they earmarked 10 percent of all funding under the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA); the Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecutors (STOP) grant and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) for “culturally specific” programs.

“Historically, Tribes were never funded under the domestic violence board; the only funding they had was through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA),” said Sandra, adding that Michigan’s “culturally-specific” earmark gave Tribes access to funding they never had before. “The work seems so hard every day,” concluded Sandra. “We can’t lose sight of the work that we’ve accomplished. We have made strives forward, but there is still more work to be done.”

“Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191 (1978).” Justia Law. Accessed October 25, 2021.

“VAWA Reauthorization Act.” Accessed October 25, 2021.

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