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Talking About Violence Against Native Women

Ashlynne Mike

In the wake of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike’s death in Shiprock on the Navajo Nation, questions have surfaced about law enforcement resources, a late Amber Alert and legal jurisdiction for the crime that’s being tried in federal court. Hand-in-hand with those concerns is also the high rate of assault on Native women.

Deleana OtherBull, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, says talking about these issues is tough, but it has to happen to support health and wellness in tribal communities. 

OTHERBULL: It sent shockwaves across the community, because this is a community that is very rural, trusting of their neighbors, often leave their front doors unlocked. In traditional culture, a lot of the children herd sheep during the day, and they’re unattended. And they’re going out and they’re working in the farms or the gardens, and they’re playing out there as well, and a lot of the times they are unwatched.

And so something that Gary Mike felt very strongly about was telling people: Watch your children. Love your children. Be very vigilant in now going forward.

Because you don’t think that these kind of things will happen in those really rural communities, but I think now there’s a shift in attitude about how the community really needs to come together and really protect the children.

KUNM: The statistics about sexual assault and Native women are pretty stark. Native women are two-and-a-half times more likely to be assaulted. How are you working to change that? And what do you think about that really particular problem for Native women?

OTHERBULL: We’re really starting the conversations and really opening up the dialog and focusing on creating safe spaces for women to talk about what’s going on, because I think that in the past, this is a very sensitive topic. There’s a lot of shame, a lot of guilt. There’s not a lot of comfort in talking about what has happened to them. Raising awareness, doing this outreach, is creating pathways into discussing solutions.

KUNM: Do you think violence is a symptom of some other problems?

OTHERBULL: We think of violence as being a symptom of larger socio-cultural problems. Intergenerational trauma, a lot of the symptoms of that include substance abuse, shame, guilt.

Some things that we’re trying to teach in our curriculum of healthy relationships is what to do in those cases when you do feel angry. We talk to young people about boundaries. I think that’s critical in this line of work is really giving them the tools that they need to confront some of those larger issues.

KUNM: What are some of the policies that you would like to see change to either better penalize people who commit sexual assault or to protect Native women from sexual assault?

OTHERBULL: Something that I would like to see happen is giving tribes full jurisdiction over crimes committed within their boundaries, and I think a part of that is also holding people accountable and not ostracizing them because they are a part of the community and there needs to be healing, community-wide. And that includes both victims and perpetrators.

KUNM: And that’s a hard stance to take at this time, right? I think people are really angry. So what do you think? In this context, in this situation, how do you propel that message of healing?

OTHERBULL: I think it’s a little too soon. I think there is a lot of anger. People don’t understand why he did this, like what his motivations were. So I think it is too soon to talk about that healing process and understanding that something may have happened in his past that propelled him into doing this awful awful thing. The conversation is going to take place later.


Learn more about the Coalition To Stop Violence Against Native Women.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.