Najaway, a Navajo woman, survived 20 years of domestic violence at the hands of two husbands—one Native, one non-Native. Now in her early 50s, she still can't get the nightmare out of her head.
"I remember my daughter looking at me after I was beat down and covered with bruises, saying, 'Mom, you should go away and not come back, because Dad might kill you,'" Najaway recalls. "She was all of six years of age."
And she is one of the lucky ones. In some communities, Native American women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average. Nearly half of all Native women have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, according to federal crime and health data.
Despite the 2010 passage of a law intended to stop the violence, the Tribal Law and Order Act, the killings and the beatings continue. In a little over a year, at least two Native women have been violently murdered in New Mexico: one with an ax, and another pushed against the interior panel of a truck and held down until she stopped breathing. The manner in which they were discovered is just as disturbing: One woman's bones, along with a Bible bearing her name, were found after a dog dug up her shallow grave and dragged the remains to a nearby home. Even when they're not fatal, the assaults Native women in New Mexico have endured over the past year are haunting: a handicapped woman raped; a woman kicked with a steel-toed boot; another hit with a baseball bat; another shot.
These are just a few of the many examples posted on US Attorney Kenneth Gonzales' website—the cases in which Gonzales' office has apprehended the perpetrators. But due to a variety of factors—intersecting federal and tribal justice systems, many victims' unwillingness to report abuse, a cycle of domestic violence and a bill languishing in Congress—many more continue to roam free.
Still, there is hope. In places where justice cannot reach, survivors are coming out of the shadows to tell their stories, reliving the pain in order to help others avoid similar suffering. Over the past two months, SFR interviewed six Native people—five women and one man—each of whose life has been touched by domestic violence. Individually and together, they're working to build a long-term solution that heals past abuses, restores traditional practices and funds community programs and services.
It is, at the very least, a start.
Eleanor (Navajo) sits perfectly still on a folding chair off to the side of the meeting room in the Shiprock Navajo Chapter House. (Eleanor's name has been changed to protect her identity.) Behind her, a hubbub of voices fills the air as people stream in to attend a silent vigil in honor of Navajo women murdered by domestic partners. It's October—Domestic Violence Awareness Month—and similar vigils are being held around the country.
The spacious, circular room is designed like a hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling often used for ceremonial purposes. It's decorated with purple balloons—the color designated for domestic violence awareness—and Navajo students' artwork depicting graphic scenes of domestic abuse.
At the front of the room, four life-size silhouettes of Navajo women stand in profile, their hair tied back in traditional Navajo buns, their arms hanging loosely by their sides. Gold nameplates identify three of them. The fourth is like the Unknown Soldier: She represents every woman who lost her life to domestic violence. They are known as the silent witnesses.
Eleanor is in her 40s. She and her six children have survived two abusive husbands, both of them Navajo. She has deep-set, piercing brown eyes that seem to look right through you. Her hair, black with a few strands of gray, is parted down the middle, and falls long and straight onto her shoulders. Turquoise earrings dangle from her ears; in the Navajo culture, turquoise is worn for protection. She gets right to the point. Her somber expression hardly changes as she tells SFR how her first husband regularly beat her.
"When he comes back drunk or when he is upset about something that he don't like that's done, I'd get hit in the face with anything he grabs," she recalls. "I would be dragged around a lot. After that, I got divorced because of him almost shooting my kids, my first three kids. Right now he is with another family, and I'm sure he's doing the same thing."
She thought things would be different when she married a second time. But four years later, the abuse started again.
"He started doing the same thing—drinking, yelling, accusing me of everything—and he got violent more and more. When I was by myself with him, he dragged me out of the trailer. He almost poked my eyes out," she says.
At the mention of the silent witnesses, tears come to her eyes and she says she can't go on. She pauses, and the haunting voice of Tracy Chapman fills the chapter house room, singing "Behind the Wall," a song about a woman who doesn't bother to report the beatings she hears next door. The song resonates in the Navajo community of Shiprock. Gloria Champion—the executive director of the Home for Women and Children, the largest domestic violence shelter on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation, and the sponsor of the vigil—says women here often don't report domestic violence because they think it's futile. As the song goes, "The police always come late, if they come at all."
On the Navajo Nation, there simply aren't enough of them. "We have an area of about 3,300 square miles that we cover, with 16 officers 24/7," says Navajo Police Lt. Calvin Begay of the Navajo Nation's Crownpoint district. "Each shift comes down to two officers and one sergeant."
A hush falls over the meeting room as people stand for a prayer. The silent witnesses—Anna Peshlakai, Jo Ann Platero, Ella Johnson and the unknown woman—seem to watch as Eleanor stands, hands folded in front of her, and tells her story once again. Afterward, she and the others form a circle and face the silent witnesses, each lighting a candle, creating a circle of light in their honor.
To many observers, the legacy of domestic violence began long ago, with the cultural clash that occurred when white settlers came to New Mexico.
Johnny Henry Jr., a medicine man from the Navajo community of Church Rock, says domestic violence was very rare in tribal communities before the white man came.
"Traditionally, the woman is considered very sacred to the Diné [Navajo] people, because the child comes from the woman," he says.
But, after the Indian wars of the last century, Native people were forced onto reservations. Their children were ripped from them and sent to Indian boarding schools, often hundreds of miles away from their families.
In a White Bison documentary, people now in their 50s, 60s and 70s speak openly—many for the first time—about the abuses they suffered in Indian boarding schools. One woman tells tearfully how she was beaten and repeatedly raped by other students; another man angrily recalls enduring frequent beatings by school personnel because he spoke his tribal language. A mother sadly tells her now-grown children that she's sorry about her distant relationship with them. She never learned how to love.
The abuses were documented as early as 1928, in what's known as the Meriam Report to Congress. By 1980, as many as 100,000 native students had been sent to around 460 boarding schools around the country. New Mexico tribal children were sent to schools in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and beyond.
Coyhis says that as children learned abusive behaviors, some of them grew into abusive parents and siblings. "You have a tendency to parent how you are parented…hurt people, hurt people," he says.
Dr. Jerry Kincade (Blackfeet), a clinical consulting psychologist at San Felipe Pueblo who has worked with tribal communities for more than 30 years, says Native American children in boarding schools experienced the worst kinds of violence.
"It was concentrated and intensified. It is shocking that the government consciously made decisions to capture, torture and kill [Native children]," Kincade says.
That led to a legacy of intergenerational trauma, a term first defined in the 1980s by Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart (Hunkpapa Oglala Lakota) as "cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma."
"You can draw a straight line from the boarding schools to alcohol abuse, substance abuse, exploitation of children and violence against women in the Indian community," Kevin Gover (Pawnee), the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, says in The Thick Dark Fog, a 2011 documentary about boarding school abuses.
According to the US Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, poverty and alcoholism—both of which occur in higher rates among Native populations—impact the severity, frequency and nature of abusive behavior.
To make matters worse, Coyhis says, "We were taught not to say anything."
Because secrets were kept, he explains, healing often couldn't happen.
By age 53, Najaway had lived half her life on the Navajo reservation and half in Albuquerque. On the day of her interview with SFR, she wears tight jeans, black leather boots and a long-sleeved, starched white shirt; her long, dark auburn hair, highlighted blonde, falls in soft curls down her shoulders and back. She seems relaxed, nibbling a cookie and playing with the cat while searching through her iPhone for photos of cats and dogs. "I love animals," she says, taking a picture of the brown tabby. But her lighthearted mood shifts when she speaks about a more painful time in her life.
Tears well up in her eyes as she remembers what she said to her first husband, also Navajo, after one of several beatings.
"'You tell me you love me, and I can't see out of one eye,'" she recalls saying. Constant beatings on the head left Najaway with a brain tumor. Although it was removed, she still suffers from migraines and needs major dental work.
"He took everything from me—my children, my home and my health," she says.
Najaway and her first husband divorced in 1989. She says she found strength from her traditional teachings to make a new life for herself in Albuquerque. She landed a teaching job and met a non-Native she thought would never hurt her. After they were happily married for about four years, she says, he started using drugs and emotionally abusing her.
When the abuse became physical, she didn't hesitate to call the police, even though she had never turned in her first husband when she lived on the reservation. The police responded immediately and found strangulation marks on her neck—a red flag in domestic violence cases since it takes just seconds to kill someone this way, according to a recent training video released by the US Office for Victims of Crime. Najaway's husband was jailed, and she entered Albuquerque's S.A.F.E House New Mexico, a domestic violence shelter, where she received counseling and job resources.
"Every now and then, I will drive by the shelter, because that's where I got my help and a lot of support from the women there," she says. "Never again will I be squished under somebody's foot and be told that I will not amount to anything."
Putting down her bottle of water and turning her attention back to the cat, she offers one emphatic piece of advice for women in domestic violence situations: "Get out before he kills you. Underline, before he kills you."
While you can't change the past, Kincade says, you can help people break the cycle of trauma and violence.
"People can change how they cope," he says, through therapies that help them to behave and think in functional ways. They're the same kind of treatments that are sometimes used for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Organizations like White Bison and the Home for Women and Children say that bringing traditional teachings back is also key to healing.
White Bison sponsors Wellbriety Recovery Circles that so far have reached 300 of the country's total 566 tribes, helping them integrate their own cultural practices into traditional healing workshops and trainings.
Traditional healers like Medicine Man Johnny Henry Jr. are also working to effect change from within.
"I do a prayer so they feel better about themselves, their family," Henry says. "Sometimes they come back and tell me, 'I'm doing good now.'"
Navajo presiding Judge Irene Toledo—whose court handles as many as 15 domestic violence cases each week in a district of approximately 29,000 people—says a focus on traditional services helps.
"I've had people sit in jail for six months for domestic violence and bring in a medicine man to talk to them [who says], 'You're not supposed to use those hands on another person; they are not made for striking, or to hurt someone,'" Toledo says. "Such type of counseling has resulted in not seeing that person or persons again in front of the court or in jail."
At the Home for Women and Children, Clifford Jack, a community educator and men's group facilitator, works with offenders using a state-certified curriculum. Jack says he presents in the curriculum in a historical framework, while integrating cultural values like ké and hozho, Navajo beliefs that teach the beauty way of life and respect for relatives and neighbors. But Jack says that acknowledging historical trauma as a cause still doesn't excuse violent behavior.
"I am a biased advocate for the safety of women, and I have been doing that," Jack says. "The guys try to give me excuses, blame whatever, but I stand firm and say, 'It's your doing.'"
The days are getting cooler, so Jean Saltwater, a 70-year-old Navajo woman, is dressed in layers—a black and white blouse, a white sweater and a parka. Her graying hair is arranged in a bun at the back of her head. She’s frail and petite, standing a little over five feet. Her face still bears the signs of a beating she says she took on Sept. 1 by a neighbor, also Navajo. Her left cheek is puffy, her right eye bloodshot, and she slumps painfully in her chair. She says her ribs were broken in the assault.
She's come with her 71-year-old sister, Helena Bates, to Navajo Nation's district court in Crownpoint for the interview. It's about 45 minutes away from her home in the Sundance community east of Gallup, and a stone's throw from the Fire Rock Casino.
Toledo has invited several people to court—the tribal attorney, prosecutor, public defender, domestic violence commissioner, police officers, victim advocate and US Bureau of Indian Affairs officials—to hear Jean and Helena's story.
Grimacing, but sitting up as straight as she can, Jean tells in a soft and somewhat shaky voice how she awoke in the middle of the night on Aug. 31 to find a man breaking into her home and a woman passed out in a bedroom. The woman was her neighbor’s 16-year-old daughter, she says. The next day, Jean says, she and Helena went to visit the girl’s mother to work out a peaceful solution—the Navajo way of handling disputes. But that never happened. Instead, she says, the mother’s boyfriend beat Jean up while another relative restrained Helena to keep her from helping. Helena rolls up her sleeve to show bruises on her left wrist. A photo from J
Helena, tall and stately, says the violence is the result of the breakdown of traditional teachings.
"All that teaching is gone now. The kids are getting violent; they don't respect their elderlies, their moms or their siblings," Helena says, standing proud and protective next to her younger sister.
If something doesn't change, Helena says, shaking her head, "In 10 years, it's going to be even worse."
Melanie Garcia (Ohkay Owingeh) is 30 years old with striking features: dark, mahogany eyes accentuated by long, raven-black hair swept up from her heart-shaped face. Aside from a pearl necklace and feather-shaped earrings made of bone, she’s dressed casually in a jacket and tennis shoes—the same as her fiancé, 29-year-old Manuel Chavez from Laguna Pueblo. They are holding hands. Chavez listens intently, head down, as Garcia reads a prepared statement that documents the abuse she lived through during her first relationship, which lasted for 10 years until she got out in June 2011.
Rochelle Thompson, Ohkay Owingeh's Indian Child Welfare Director, and Art Michaels, the special prosecutor for criminal domestic violence for Eight Northern Pueblos Peacekeepers, have stayed to listen to their stories. Michaels provides prosecution services to tribal members of Ohkay Owingeh, Taos, Picuris, Santa Clara, Tesuque, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Nambé.
As she reads her three-page statement, Garcia holds Chavez' hand a little tighter. He lightly squeezes hers back to reassure her.
Garcia tells how the abuse began after her two children were born and worsened as her ex-boyfriend—the father of her children—drank more and more.
"I would go to work with bruises on my face, arms [and] legs from getting beat up. I would try to cover up my bruises with eyeshadow and cover-up [on] my face, but couldn't cover up my swollenness," she says.
Gripping Chavez' hand a little tighter, Garcia tells how she began drinking in hopes that it would keep her marriage together—only to realize that, if she didn't stop, she would lose her children.
"One morning, I woke up with my 3-year-old daughter crying. She looked up at me and I asked, 'What's wrong?' She answered, as she hugged me tightly, 'I hate when you drink.' I knew then, when I looked into her innocent eyes, that I needed to stop immediately. I told her I was done. I promised her with all my heart," she says.
Chavez says he too survived six years of abuse at the hands of his spouse, also a tribal member, while living at Laguna. He says his wife slapped, punched and smacked him around whenever things didn't go her way. He admits he once responded to the physical violence by pushing her and ended up in jail. He was no stranger to domestic violence growing up, either. "I don't want to be like my father," he says.
He grew up at Laguna, learning traditional teachings from his mother. He says he believes that women should be respected, because they are the ones who keep the tribe strong. "That's what I learned as a kid," he says.
Together, Garcia and Chavez are working to create a better world for themselves and their children.
"They were angry kids before," Garcia says, but now her kids thank her for changing her life. "I try to be the best mother that I can—carve pumpkins for Halloween, have a good Thanksgiving," she says. "Now, for Christmas, we made stockings last night."
While survivors like Chavez and Garcia are working to make change in their communities, the fight to halt domestic violence on tribal lands faces other obstacles.
As of press time, Congress was still deliberating on whether to renew the Violence Against Women Act, a 1994 law that authorizes funding for prosecuting and preventing violent crimes against women. VAWA has been mired in a political battle since April over jurisdictional issues and protections for immigrants and same-sex couples. Most notably for Native communities, a provision in the new VAWA gives tribal courts the ability to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes on tribal lands.
Nationally, Native American women marry non-Native men around half the time, and the numbers vary on what percentage of abuse is perpetrated by non-Natives (estimates range from 25 to 60 percent). If and when a non-Native is apprehended in a domestic violence case, the case must be referred to federal court, which can sometimes take years to prosecute.
To Geoffrey Tager, Ohkay Owingeh's chief judge, the current system makes no sense.
"It's possible for a tribal court civilly to conduct a marriage of a non-Indian, and it's possible to do a parenting plan and a dissolution of a marriage for a Native and non-Native and order child support—but in actually committing a crime, the same [tribal] jurisdiction is powerless to act," he says. "It is incredibly unfortunate and one of the bigger issues we are dealing with."
"As Native American men and women, when we do something in the county or the state, they come after us," adds Henry, the medicine man. "Why can't we do the same when they do something wrong on the reservation?"
Expanding tribal jurisdiction to non-Natives, Henry says, would go a long way toward protecting Native women, children and men.
"I think this law is going to help a lot of people on the reservation. That's the way I see it," he says.
But some politicians believe the provision gives tribal courts too much power, possibly even at the expense of non-Natives' constitutional rights.
Kiersten Stewart, the director of public policy and advocacy for Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit that works to prevent violence against women and children, says concerns about non-Native offenders' civil rights are unfounded. "Folks are raising constitutional issues over non-Indians, but these issues are addressed," Stewart tells SFR. "It is constitutional."
But lawyer-journalist Nicholas Hentoff, who uncovered the brutal rape and murder of 19-year-old Priscilla Lee Yazza on the Navajo Nation in 1984 and has litigated in tribal courts, also points to concerns about tribal courts' capabilities.
"The controversy over the failure of Congress to pass the VAWA amendments is a red herring. It is a political ploy by tribal governments to expand their jurisdiction at the expense of tribal members who remain without adequate criminal justice services and law enforcement protection," Hentoff writes in an email to SFR.
Tager says that if tribes succeed in gaining criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, tribal courts will make sure they are treated fairly and cases resolved faster than federal ones. In addition, he says, tribal courts have an extra benefit: community-based services.
Ohkay Owingeh's Indian Child Welfare program makes sure families, including those with non-Native parents, receive services.
"They are the family. Just because they are non-Native doesn't mean we won't be there for them, if they are going to be part of the community. We are. There are resources for them as well—getting them into parenting classes, getting them the counseling they need," says Thompson, adding that the Indian Child Welfare program is already having an effect in Ohkay Owingeh. "I am seeing changes in families in domestic violence, drug abuse and alcohol abuse," she says. "It is work at hand. This afternoon, I'm going back to close out two of my cases."
While stakeholders differ on questions of tribal jurisdiction, most of them agree on one thing: Funding is lacking.
Since the passage of the federal Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010, funding in the major grant program for tribal justice services has declined: In 2011, 146 tribes received an estimated $118 million; last year, 110 tribes received just $101 million, and many of the nation's 566 federally recognized tribes (not to mention the estimated 400 unrecognized tribes) received no funding at all.
At a Dec. 7 tribal leadership council, held on Agua Caliente tribal lands in California, Acting Associate US Attorney General Tony West told tribal leaders that federal agencies are looking to provide increased support for prosecutions, police training, forensics, sexual assault response teams, victim services and culturally sensitive practices.West also said that his office is pushing Congress to pass the version of VAWA that gives tribal courts jurisdiction over non-Natives in domestic violence cases.
To help families break the cycle of violence, White Bison founder Coyhis has set up an office in Washington, DC, to fight for a federal apology for the abuses Native children suffered in boarding schools. Even this symbolic gesture, he says, will help address historical trauma.
Garcia and Chavez, while making wedding plans, continue to speak out about domestic violence. Garcia says she plans to volunteer as an advocate, with Chavez at her side, for Eight Northern Pueblos Peacekeeping.
"I am here to stand up and speak up for all the other Native women to speak out…who are afraid to talk about it. Maybe, through me, they will be strong to talk about it," Garcia says. "They shouldn't hide what's going on behind closed doors. Sometimes, if you wait too long, they may not be here to speak about it."
Najaway has secured a job as a first responder in medical emergencies, is reunited with her children and has begun to speak out against domestic violence to other Native women. Jean is fighting for her health, which Eleanor says has worsened since the beating, but she feels safer since her abuser was arrested in early December.
And Eleanor continues her work as a volunteer for the Home for Women and Children, setting a daily example for other women, especially her daughters.
"It's better to be with my kids, and that's it," she says. "That's why I learned on my own to do that. I'm trying to teach my girls, if they are ever in that situation, to do the same thing."
In the end, though, breaking the cycle takes time, and Michaels stresses that many women need somewhere safe to go right now.
"Where's the money for that?" he asks.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that Judge Irene Toledo oversaw as many as 15 domestic violence cases per week in Crownpoint, "a community of less than 2,300 people." Toledo oversees the entire district that encompasses Crownpoint, meaning her court serves approximately 29,000 people. SFR regrets the error.