By NICK ESTES
“How do we be good allies to Navajo women and our queer people? How do we support these citizens of our nation?” asked University of New Mexico Associate Professor of American Studies Jennifer Denetdale at the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC). Denetdale, also an NNHRC Commissioner, set the tone for the commission’s community meeting held last Thursday and Friday at the Fort Defiance Chapter House in Fort Defiance, AZ.
The UNM American Studies Department and the NNHRC co-sponsored Thursday and Friday’s symposium “The Status of Navajo Women & Gender Violence Is a Human Rights Issue: Conversations with Diné Medicine People.”
About 40 citizens of the Navajo Nation and several students from the University of New Mexico attended last week’s event. Central to the main dialogue, four Navajo medicine people were asked to give testimony about traditional stories on sexuality and gender. Rita Gilmore, Marie Salt, Philmer Bluehouse, and Henry Barber presented these traditional Navajo perspectives. NNHRC commissioners—Steve Darden (chair), Valerie Kelly, and Jennifer Denetdale—centered the dialogue on discrimination and gender violence against Navajo LGBTQ people and women within the framework of human and civil rights.
NNHRC Executive Director Leonard Gorman emphasized the importance of the Navajo Nation taking these dialogues seriously. “Do not hide behind your faith, your religion,” Gorman reminded participants because “other people in other nations are watching to see how we deal with LGBTQ [discrimination] in our nation.” Gorman went on to say that the Navajo Nation has a history beginning in the early 1990s of participating in international forums to address Indigenous human rights and, in more recent years, anti-Navajo border town violence and racism.
The NNHRC originated in recent years amid border town violence. During the summer of 2006 in Farmington, NM, a 47-year-old Navajo man was taken to the country and beaten by three white teenagers. Six days later a 21-year old Navajo man was shot and killed in a Wal-Mart parking lot by a non-Native police officer. Although the Farmington Police Department ruled the shooting as “justifiable homicide,” the Navajo Nation government set aside funds to file a wrongful death suit and to further investigate anti-Navajo border town racism and violence.
It wouldn’t be until 2008, however, that the NNHRC was formally adopted as a government entity within the Navajo Nation Legislative Branch charged with the task of investigating human rights violations inside Navajo Nation jurisdiction and creating partnerships with outside entities and governments to address border town racism. Specifically, NNHRC investigations target four thematic areas: protection of sacred sites; environmental issues; forced relocation of Navajo families from the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Relocation Act; and the unsolved deaths of Navajo citizens within, near, or around border towns. In recent years, the NNHRC addressed continued racial tensions in border towns, voter redistricting in AZ, NM, and UT, and predatory auto sales targeting low-income Navajo families.
Thursday and Friday’s gender violence symposium foregrounded new areas of inquiry for the NNHRC. It also reflected the nature of how Indigenous human rights processes materialize—from local to global. Topics of discussion centered on the Navajo Nation’s passage of the 2005 Defense of Marriage Act, which bans same-sex marriage, and the 2011 Violence Against Family Act, which is a jurisdictional provision “to recognize that family violence is contrary to the traditional Navajo way of life and is a violation of fundamental human rights.” Both acts remain contentious and were questioned about whether they reflect traditional Navajo values and are applicable to how domestic violence is enforced.
At the local level, the violent history of colonization that continues into the present remained a large part of the discussion, especially as it concerned silencing gender and domestic violence. Navajo traditional medicine woman Rita Gilmore argued that the history and continued existence of colonial violence has to be reckoned with: “We learned [white] ways, their ways of violence.” “Their ways of life,” Gilmore continued, “have become part of us.” Gilmore reminded participants that colonial violence has been internalized in the home, “a holy place.”
Untangling this history of violence, as Marie Salt stated, has resulted in Navajo people to take stock of what they haven’t lost. “The white people came and took a lot,” she said. “We barely have anything. What we have we have to put on paper.” For Salt, this loss included how women and the home have been re-structured according to non-Navajo values with dire consequences. One such consequence is the devaluing of traditional and historic women leadership roles.
Some participants observed how the walls of the chapter house were lined with portraits of male Navajo leaders. If women were traditionally and historically leaders, “Where is their recognition?” they asked. Among participants and the Navajo medicine people, there appeared, however, to be a general consensus about the lack and devaluing of traditional women leadership roles.
Although female leadership was highlighted, there remained ambiguity about the inclusion and valuing of Navajo queer sexualities. Despite this lack of clarity and contention about traditional acceptance of queer people, one participant observed, “This is the first time I’ve heard the word ‘queer’ spoken openly in this chapter house.”
Many participants also observed that, though there was significant attention given to the lack of female leadership and anti-LGBTQ discrimination, patriarchy and male-dominance were not adequately challenged and discussed, especially since many of the perpetrators of domestic violence are men.
Gender and LGBTQ discrimination is more than personal identity politics and assimilation, according to Denetdale. “You can’t call it just personal,” Denetdale stated. She clarified that it is more than that; it encompasses not just gender and sexuality but the future of the Navajo Nation’s human and nonhuman relationships. “To call that assimilation,” she continued, “is an act of violence.”
Also, the issue of Navajo youth was raised as being inadequately defined and incorporated into the discussion. The failure of youth to live up to the traditional Navajo ways of life was also a topic of discussion. Many felt it was unfair to categorize youth as not being traditional enough or failing to learn traditional custom. Answering this concern, Denetdale stated, “If fifty percent of our nation is under the age of twenty five, then we are discriminating against half of our people when we make statements like this.”
The NNHRC is, however, making strides into interrogating the role of ongoing colonial violence, gender and sexual discrimination, and youth issues facing the Navajo Nation. In light of these dialogues, the NNHRC will continue to hold community-level discussions about contemporary challenges that face the Navajo Nation through the framework of human rights. Over the course of the next couple of years, the NNHRC plans to collect data and testimony to report on their findings, since no central database about violence against women and LGBTQ discrimination exists. More importantly, these discussions are timely and, indeed, are setting the precedent of connecting histories of colonization to gender and anti-LGBTQ discrimination.