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Guest Column | Ghąąjį’: Bringing light to domestic violence

By Emily Ellison

Editor’s note: Emily Ellison is the executive director of Battered Families Services, a nonprofit organization based in Gallup, since 1981.

October signifies the beginning of the Navajo Cultural New Year, as accented by the changing seasons, and with the significance of the Night Way Chant, commonly known as Yé’ii Bicheii.

October is also National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

This is an opportune time to bring light and conversation to the domestic violence challenges which permeate the Navajo Nation. The Navajo people were traditionally a matrilineal society, with women participating in all aspects of Navajo life.

They are landowners, livestock protectors, and caretakers of the land and keep harmony in the family and community. With this in mind, women were afforded what was once considered a sacred status. However, with the persistent rise of domestic violence incidences in the Nation, it appears that a virtual breakdown of this cultural and familial system has taken place.

Though domestic violence can affect anyone, American Indian women are disproportionately involved in higher numbers of violence compared to any other people group. Even the United States Supreme Court recognized this fact when it found the federal habitual domestic violence perpetrator statute constitutionally valid in the U.S. vs. Bryant, 2016.

The rise of outside influences and foreign political systems, such as American paternalism, has contributed to the devaluation and depreciation of Navajo women. The displacement of the Navajo women’s voice in the greater community and from the decision-making role has contributed to the decrease of female representation in political affairs and leadership.

The devaluation of Navajo Women made them increasingly more susceptible to physical, political, verbal, emotional, sexual, and economic violence. The violence perpetuated against Navajo Women has sparked a call for action to bring attention to domestic violence, sexual violence, and missing and murdered women and relatives and to bring an end to this victimization of women. Everyone deserves a life without violence; if they experience violence, they have the right to justice.

The movement of advocates and allies fighting for equity and justice showcases the resilience Navajo Women embody and to which their spirit speaks. This spirit is being restored with harmony and infused with strength and courage, which underwrites the perseverance of Navajo Women in their fight to end violence in their life.

Navajo women’s resilience is demonstrated in every aspect of their life, shown through their work, academics, motherhood, sisterhood, and parenthood. Navajo women teach and advocate what they believe every day, seeking to end intimate partner abuse and family violence.

There are many reasons why violence can happen in a relationship, or someone becomes a perpetrator of violence against another. Causes are not mistaken for an excuse, and understanding is crucial to eliminating the problem through early detection and the key to violence prevention.

The vast majority of perpetrators of violence are men. The offenders of domestic violence in the Batterer Intervention Program have a history of adverse childhood experiences, having grown up in households with absent fathers or absent male role models.

Role models can instruct on the Navajo Cultural systems of equity and respect for women. The influence of a strong male role model can increase our ability to develop trusting relationships and increases our capacity to interact positively with one another. The presence of a positive figure early in life strengthens our resolve to decrease the likelihood that someone will be a perpetrator of violence. Yet when violence is already present, the greater question is what happens next.

Perpetrators should be held accountable for the violence they have inflicted, but many escape the law and commit more offenses towards the same victim or victimize another. The gaps in the Navajo governmental systems, Navajo courts, and, most importantly, outdated laws hinder the end of violence against women. Individuals who have experienced violence found it challenging to work with these systems.

Safety is a priority, and the need for an ironclad system is a necessity. The Navajo judicial system needs more collaboration, communication, and the utilization of resources to hold perpetrators accountable so they do not re-offend.

During October, Battered Families Services worked in a concentrated effort to bring awareness to domestic violence and the services other organizations, and we have available. We continue to work to end the social stigma that has silenced domestic violence victims and to inform everyone that there is no shame or judgment in asking for help. Domestic violence can affect anyone, and our organization aims to bring survivors’ voices to conversations with leadership and a platform to tell their stories.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing violence, you have the right to leave, and Battered Families Services is here to help. Life is meant to be a beautiful and loving experience that you deserve.


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