Like so many other times, I stopped at a gas station just outside the boundary of the Navajo Nation. As I start to pump gas in my SUV for my trip back to Albuquerque, a young Diné woman approaches me and asks if she might catch a ride to Gallup, a bordertown about 15 minutes away. Apprehensive about strangers in my car, especially when I am alone, I look at her and say, “Let me think about it.” She nods and goes to stand against the store front.
I forgot about her and just as I drive off, she knocks on my window and asks, “Will you give me a ride to Gallup, please?” I look at her for some minutes. Finally, I gesture “get in.” She climbs in and her story begins. She had been with her family who went to Gallup to sell Navajo tacos; they had made barely enough for gas money to return home, about a hundred and fifty miles away. During the course of the day, her younger sister hit their mother as she was driving them home. She shows me how her sister hit their mother with a backhand to the face. She elaborated to say that her father was an alcoholic who did little to intervene when their mother was being battered and that violent fights were a part of her family life.
She got out of the truck at the store because she was trying to change her life. Her open jacket revealed her pregnancy. She was on her way back to her boyfriend’s home in a Navajo community off of Interstate 40. She thought that once she got to Gallup, she could hitch another ride. I took her all the way back to her boyfriend’s home, about twenty miles out of my way. As I parked in front of his home, she thanked me with a hug. I told her to take care of herself and her baby.
One of the darkest secrets that we talk about only to each other, what is considered private and intimate, is actually epidemic in our nation and communities. It shapes how we make our nation and communities and how we treat each other as relatives and family. The young woman’s story of violence is commonplace and I not only have heard so many such stories, but have been a victim myself. I have lent my ear and support for those who experienced rape, assaults, domestic violence, gender discrimination, harassment, and hate crimes.
As women and queer folks, if we are fortunate—and two Amnesty International reports indicate that many of us are not—we may not have directly experienced domestic violence, assault, or rape, but we know someone who has. Violence on tribal nations has its roots in colonization and it has taken new forms under capitalism and neoliberalism. This violence is the result of patriarchal structures; our present Navajo government is one such example. Patriarchal structures rely on positioning heterosexuality as desirable, women as lesser then men, and anyone who is not a straight male as without value. The way people and life ways are devalued sets up a system that sees the violence done to so many within our community as okay. A recent Albuquerque Journal article states that Navajo tribal leaders do not consider the efforts by the Coalition for Navajo Equality, headed by Alray Nelson, to reverse the same-sex marriage ban, a very pressing issue.
Stories of personal experiences, news sources that highlight specific cases, and police reports indicate that gender violence is epidemic and yet the silence around these issues speak loudly and proclaim that women and queers can be hurt without our collective objection.
As an educator, scholar, and a Diné woman, I live within the structures of violence that are part of the Navajo Nation. I have come to recognize just how entrenched patriarchal violence is, so much so that it feels normal to the point that we often remain silent in its presence. Gendered violence is present in how we treat each other, how our criminal justice system looks away from the assaults on women and Navajo LGBTQ, how federal prosecutors decline a significant number of cases presented for prosecution, and in how there is no tracking or attending to cases that may be LGBTQ hate related. Some people have made the observation that on reservation lands such as Navajo, criminal activity is rampant. The Navajo Nation’s Violence Against Family Act, passed in 2012, declares that the legislation intends to “provide for the safety and protection of family members from violence.” The Act details what kinds of violence, including assaults on family members, stalking, threats, etc., are subjected to penalties, defines victims’ rights to fairness, compassion, and advises prompt legal and just actions. It also states that violence is not a part of Navajo tradition. This legislation was ten years in the making and calls attention to the on-going anti-Indianism of the American legal system that profoundly limits tribal courts to penalizing perpetuators to no more than a year of jail time and a maximum of $5,000 in fines. Part of the silence surrounding gender violence is the result of our own inaction, but it is also the colonizing government’s limitations on our nation’s ability to protect its people. The Tribal Law and Order Act (2010) and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (2013) seek to restore safety to Native women, yet there is still an urgent need to restore full criminal authority to tribal nations.
I find myself thinking of the young woman I shared a brief car ride with and her baby. Her choice to leave her family’s car and ask others for help was a first step for her to determine that she would not raise her baby in violence. Her experience is just my most recent encounter with the way our lives are impacted by gender violence.
Domestic violence, sexual assault, anti-gay policies, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and anti-queer bullying are all forms of gender violence that pervade our family, work, and social lives. Having spent years on the topic of gender violence and searching for the data to delineate the amount and nature of this violence, I am pleased that the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission has agreed to undertake a study to gather the data. The United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights is explicit in recognizing the existence of violence against women. World conferences such as the 1995 Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action address gender discrimination as a human rights abuse and key human rights mechanisms of the United Nations have affirmed States’ obligations to ensure effective protection of all persons from discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity. Finally, international human rights standards have begun to focus on the position of some tribal nations and communities that claim same-sex relationships and marriages are not traditional. Discriminatory gender practices cannot be validated or excused based upon calls to traditional principles. I am enthralled that our Commission has agreed to launch a study of just how pervasive this violence is and to call for an interpretation that places it within a human rights framework that could lead to reformed policies that respect traditional principles of K’e(kinship).
Jennifer Denetdale is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. She was appointed to the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission by the speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, Johnny Naize. She serves a four year term and is heading the Commission’s study on gender violence on the Navajo Nation.