New Mexico Tribes Grapple With Domestic Violence

Jan 2, 2013

Navajo child's artwork from vigil exhibit

Nationally, Native American women are more likely to be killed, raped, assaulted and stalked than any other women in the country, according to federal crime and health data.  What’s more, the offenders are both native and non-native. There’s been a breakdown in traditional practices, lack of funding for services and when it comes to non-natives, tribes don’t have the authority to arrest them on their own lands. A controversial law offered solutions but never made it through Congress in 2012.  

Last October – as part of domestic violence awareness month - fifty members of the Navajo Nation gathered together at the Shiprock chapter house. They were there to attend a silent vigil in honor of Navajo    women murdered by domestic partners. Four life-sized silhouettes stood eerily in the front of the room to represent the murdered women.  They’re known as the silent witnesses.  Eleanor, whose real name has been changed to protect her identity, was at the vigil to speak for them.

"Some people they will just look at you when you are getting beat," she said. "If a woman is getting beat and there are kids involved they should do something."

Eleanor survived twenty years of domestic violence at the hands of two husbands – both native. Now, she’s telling her story at events like this one to encourage women who are victims of domestic violence to get out before it’s too late.  She says her first husband would hit her with anything he could grab.

"When he comes back drunk or when he is upset about something that he don’t like that’s done, I would be dragged around a lot of time. 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."

The Home for Women and Children - a domestic violence shelter in Shiprock – was the sponsor of the event. Besides providing a safe haven, the home conducts a state certified offender program that includes Navajo traditional teachings. Clifford Jack is the facilitator. He says that wherever you go you are supposed to treat everyone as your relative. But that, he says, is not being practiced. "Women are objectified due to other influence, rather than seeing women as your female relative, like a long time ago. I teach them the clan system, so I encourage them to go back and learn.  It does make a difference. Women will say, ‘What have you done to my husband?  I can talk to him.’"

While this approach   may work with anyone, advocates say that more solutions are needed when a non-native offender is involved. That’s because of jurisdictional issues.   A 1978 Supreme Court decision ruled that tribes can’t prosecute non-natives who commit criminal acts on their lands. Arthur Michaels is a tribal prosecutor in Espanola.  He says the court ruling is just wrong. "It’s abhorrent and it’s injustice not to have non-Indians prosecuted on Indian lands when they commit the crime on Indian lands."

Arthur Michaels, Special Prosecutor for Criminal Domestic Violence cases, Eight Northern Pueblos Peacekeepers and Rochelle Thompson, Director, Indian Child Welfare program, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

Michaels says that this ruling keeps tribal communities from obtaining justice. He explains that when a non-native abuses or kills a native woman, the case goes to federal agencies like the FBI, and this could take up to two years to prosecute. "First, they have to determine if you did it. They have to determine if it’s a misdemeanor or a felony; then they have big case loads. So, justice is not done, justice delayed is justice denied."

This past year, tribes fought to get their power to prosecute non-natives back through a provision in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.  The bill stalled last year because of continued concerns about the non-native defendant’s civil rights.  But, advocates say these concerns are unfounded, because the proposed law protects their rights, like the right to a public defender    The bill also provides funding for domestic violence services.

While the controversy continues, Najaway, a Navajo woman, who was almost strangled to death by her husband, has this blunt advice. "An abuser will always be an abuser until he gets help or until he is incarcerated. Get out before he kills you. You know.  Underline, before he kills you."

Najaway and Eleanor say that if they hadn’t gotten help from domestic violence shelters, they may be silent witnesses today.  Tribal prosecutor Michaels says support for domestic violence shelters is needed now so that women and children have a safe place to go. "It’s one thing to talk about we’re for helping the Indian people and native women, and all this stuff, if you don’t give them the money or the resources, you’re just conning them."

Navajo family attending the Shiprock vigil

The Violence Against Women Act never made it through Congress last year - even though one hundred and twenty congressional members from both parties - urged the house leadership to vote on it. Their letter of support highlights the fact that -- three women are killed every day in the United States by an intimate partner.

A print version of this story appears as the cover story in today’s issue of the Santa Fe Reporter entitled "Leave Before He Kills You."

Watch this Santa Fe Reporter interview with abuse survivor Melanie Garcia and her fiancee Manuel Chavez on the Ohkay Ohwingeh Pueblo.