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
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
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
“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
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.
At the boarding schools, many children were emotionally,
physically and sexually abused, Don Coyhis (Mohican) tells SFR. Coyhis is the
founder of White Bison, Inc., an organization that aims to heal the trauma of
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
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
“He took everything from me—my children, my home and my health,”
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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.