Diné Victim Advocates Overcome Stigma and Limited Resources to Develop a Community Response to Sexual Violence
Montezuma Creek • Navajo Nation Council delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty wore her grandmother’s delicately patterned yellow, blue and purple scarf as she spoke to members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Montezuma Creek on Wednesday.
The colors of the scarf, she said, were chosen to honor the memory of Ashlynne Mike, an 11-year-old Diné girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered near Shiprock, New Mexico, in 2016.
Agents from the FBI office in Salt Lake City traveled to southern San Juan County to award Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS) for its Victims’ Advocacy Program, which Crotty and others say will become a model program to support victims of sexual assault and domestic violence across the Navajo Nation. But amid the pageantry and congratulations, Crotty reminded the federal and tribal law enforcement officials who were present of the stakes in the matter.
“It’s very hard work,” she said. “There is a stigma. Nobody wants to talk about it. ” But facing issues head-on opens up space for addressing root causes and healing, she said.
“In 2016 when we lost Ashlynne,” Crotty continued, “as a community we remember how vulnerable we felt as mothers and fathers knowing that our children should be safe here in communities. that they love, the community they were raised in. We started to make a coordinated effort and ask ourselves, “How can we help? How did this happen? How can we prevent it?”
Crotty helped convince Congress to pass legislation in 2018 that extended the AMBER alert system to the Navajo Nation and other tribal nations in the United States, a bill known as “Ashlynne’s Law”. Later that same year, Crotty wore the scarf when she testified for three hours before the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs regarding the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women, men, children and transgender people, issues that are exacerbated by the underfunding of tribal law enforcement services . And a lack of solid data collection makes it difficult to assess the full extent of the problem.
A model program
Recent federal laws such as Savannah act, which became law last year, seeks to address those issues, but Crotty acknowledged on Wednesday that local efforts on the ground such as the program developed by UNHS are just as important.
UNHS currently employs four victim advocates who run a hotline and provide resources in southern San Juan County, including connecting families fleeing domestic violence with shelter services.
“I always say, ‘We shouldn’t be this busy,'” said Tonya Grass, an UNHS victim advocate for the Monument Valley area. “We are busy as if we live in city centers. “
Grass and her colleagues Lynn Bia, Danialle Whitehat and Jessica Holiday received the FBI Community Leadership Award for their work in overcoming the challenges facing defenders in a rural area where tackling crime can be complicated by overlap. county, state, federal and tribal law enforcement jurisdictions.
“A lot of these victims are getting discouraged,” said Grass, who is studying for a master’s degree in criminal justice. “They are sent from agency to agency and they have to understand things. This is what we are here for [as victim advocates]. It’s very complex, and I’m glad the service is there so we can let everyone know how it works.
Bia, who was hired as the first UNHS Victim Advocate in 2014, covered all of southern San Juan County, from Dill to Navajo Mountain when she started, and she said he had taken years for the program to become what it is today.
“There were no resources here,” Bia said. “I had to google stuff. I had to use common sense and slowly began to work to strengthen our resources.
Law enforcement and collaboration
Many advocates have noted that law enforcement needs to play a key role, which requires improving coordination between the county sheriff, the Navajo Nation Police Force, and the FBI. Bia said she considered becoming a police officer with the Navajo Nation when she saw the local needs, but instead decided to continue with her current role.
At the ceremony, Navajo Nation Council delegate Nathaniel Brown called on the FBI to send more resources to the Navajo Nation.
“We need more visibility from the FBI,” Brown said. “We need more prosecutions against these individuals who commit these heinous crimes. “
Captain Leonard Redhorse III of the Navajo Nation’s Shiprock Police Department echoed the call for increased federal partnerships, but said tribal law enforcement must take the lead.
“We have a different view of the police,” he said. “We have a different view of delivering service to our employees, and this is the antithesis of the Western Eurocentric concept of how we engage in problem solving. Redhorse spoke of looking “upstream” to find sources of violent crime and seeking collaborative and community solutions.
Crotty sees the UNHS model as an example of how to effectively engage on the issue. “For many generations, these systems were not built for the good of our people,” she said. “And that’s what I see [changing] here in Utah. [UNHS’ program] is community. The community has a role to play within the governing body.
Inspired by the success of the program, Crotty, who chairs the Navajo Nation’s Naabik’íyáti ‘Sexual Assault Prevention Subcommittee, helped UNHS become a representative to receive grants that will fund similar programs in the Northwest from New Mexico and northern Arizona.
“I hope that in the next five years we will have something similar across the Navajo nation,” said Grass, the victims’ attorney.
Opening of a new refuge in Blanding
Even though the UNHS program has become more robust, Bia, who also serves as the housing coordinator for domestic violence, noted that there was a glaring lack of adequate shelters for domestic violence in the area.
Currently, when a family needs help, Bia or a colleague will have to drive them to a shelter hours away in Flagstaff, Arizona, Grand Junction, Colorado, or Price, Utah.
But that too is changing. Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer oversaw the dedication ceremony for the renovated Gentle Ironhawk Hideaway in Blanding on Wednesday, which is equipped to accommodate up to thirty county residents.
The shelter was purchased by the Navajo Nation in 2018, and it will be endowed by UNHS with support from other nonprofits.
The UNHS program is “very unique,” said Gary Scheller, director of the Utah Office for Victims of Crime, during the inauguration ceremony.
“Most of our programs,” he said, “operate out of police departments, prosecutors’ offices or non-profit domestic violence or rape victim support centers. To our knowledge , it’s the only one that works from a health care system… but it makes a lot more sense because it’s about healing.
Over the past 20 years, UNHS has expanded its services beyond narrowly defined medical and dental care, growing from 20 people at the turn of the millennium to more than 400 current employees. The health care system is the largest employer in San Juan County.
While the bulk of UNHS’s work is focused on the Navajo Nation, the shelter is located off the reservation and will be open to all residents of the area, regardless of their tribal affiliation. Last year, San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws has warned the San Juan School District Board of Directors on a “developing rape culture” among students in the region, particularly in the predominantly white high schools of Blanding and Monticello. In January, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on several cases of serial sexual abuse in the county and efforts to bring more resources to victims.
As Crotty finished her speech in Montezuma Creek, she again reverted to her grandmother’s scarf.
“It’s for all the grandmothers here who just shower your love on your kids,” she said, “I’m a product of this. I was hugging my grandma’s skirt and I could smell wood smoke. It was my safest place. And so I wear her scarves in all these colors to honor Ashlynne and the beauty of our children, but also the strength of our grandparents.
Crotty spoke of continuing to build a “healing circle” through better data collection, expanded community programs, better law enforcement and the sharing of traditional teachings.
“We are not going to not tell our story anymore,” she said. “We are going to create these healing spaces.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for the Salt Lake Tribune. Your matching donation to our RFA grant helps her continue to write stories like this; please consider making a tax deductible donation of any amount today by clicking here.