MOENKOPI, AZ – People often ask why someone would torture another human being. The long and short of torture is that it exists and leaves behind devastation unequal to any natural force. This man-made devastation is complex, multi-pronged, long-term, and often cyclical; and more importantly hard to comprehend much less understand.
Indigenous peoples around the world are often some of the most vulnerable and invisible populations subject to torture. In a world where consumptive practices of commoditized resources are a premium, indigenous peoples experience the power and control wielded by those in position often through illegal and deadly means.
This continues to be a part of the indigenous narrative and it became even more polarized on a personal level when I was the Associate Director of the Hopi Foundation when relatives from west central South America traveled thousands of miles to seek help. It was my first introduction to missing and murdered indigenous peoples in real-time.
Sad to say, the exploitation and torture of indigenous peoples, including North American Indian Tribes and Alaska Natives is a part of our history. You don’t have to look far to see the remnants of destruction left across Indian Country because it is part of our experience and in many ways, remains so.
Helping torture survivors is not easy by any imagination of the mind. It is often a long reach beyond an overwhelming sense of helplessness to arrive at a space of determination that perhaps something could be done to help individuals who by luck or chance, survived torture.
Under the auspices of the Hopi Foundation, we established the Center for the Prevention and Resolution of Violence and subsequently the Owl and Panther Program in Tucson, Arizona with the help of psychiatrist Barbara Chester, Rob Robin, Barbara Poley, Marianna Neil, Amy Shubitz, and Marge Pellegrino. It is a place where clinical help was provided to torture survivors that also utilized the universal language of the arts, prayer, and indigenous healing practices. Many individuals have come through the CPRV doors from nearly every country. Such is the state of our world.
When Chester journeyed on, we decided to honor her legacy and other courageous individuals around the globe who work on the front lines to help torture survivors piece their lives back together by establishing the Barbara Chester Award. Individuals like Zimbabwe’s Shari Eppel whose expertise in forensics brings voice to the voiceless in the quest for justice. Like Dr. Juan Almendarez of Honduras who administered to people surviving full scale terror campaigns, death squads, and repression. Nearly every Barbara Chester Awardee has been subject to torture during their own efforts to help survivors of torture.
On October 4, 2019, I met our latest Barbara Chester Awardee. Dr. Sana Hamzeh from Lebanon, a founding member of the Restart Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture; providing training on forensic documentation of psychological evidence of torture and sexual violence.
Every single Barbara Chester Award winner is a person of courage. Individuals who risk their own lives to make the world safer for all of us and to help bring justice to those that no longer cannot and to those who are left behind. Hopi elder Emory Sekaquaptewa once helped us to visualize the aftermath of torture with a broken pottery and the work of Barbara Chester Awardees as individuals who piece the broken pottery back together.
The Barbara Chester Award consists of a silver feather Award crafted by Hopi artist Floyd Lomakuyvaya and $10,000. It is a small token of recognition for “presence of work” that is central to balance, security, and our human right to live fully and happily at any place on the globe, at any given time in history. It is about our own power and the bright light we can shine collectively to some of the darkest corners of our globe and our will to change the power and control paradigms among citizens of our world community for good. But most importantly, it is reaching out to those individuals that need love, hope, and comfort.
I once asked Barbara Chester why she worked with survivors of torture. In her soft voice, she answered, “because mercy has a human heart.”