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.