Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
As the news of the sexual assault and murder of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike sent shock waves of grief – and fear – through the Navajo Nation last week, Jana Pfeiffer, 31, couldn’t stop thinking about her own kidnapping and sexual assault at the hands of a Navajo family member 20 years ago.
“You think you have trust in that person, and you wouldn’t think that something like this would happen,” Pfeiffer said.
As shocking as the crimes against Ashlynne were, sexual assault is all too common in Native communities.
Research shows that Native women are 2½ times more likely to experience sexual assault than women of all other races, and the community knows it.
The road from Farmington to Shiprock is dotted with billboards proclaiming “1 in 3 Native women is sexually assaulted” and display a number for a local sexual assault center.
But resources on the reservation for victims of sexual assault are few and far between.
Deleana OtherBull, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said a lot of sexual assault and domestic violence cases can be traced back to the other issues common to Native populations.
“Our community faces large numbers – disproportionate to larger cities – of substance abuse and poverty,” OtherBull said. “We refer to violence as a symptom of larger issues that are happening.”
Although Native women are more likely to be assaulted by non-Native men nationally, OtherBull said, statewide research published in 2014 shows that 88 percent of sexual assaults against Native women in New Mexico involved Native offenders.
Tom Begaye Jr., 27, the man charged in Ashlynne’s kidnapping and murder, is Navajo and lived on the reservation. Federal investigators said he admitted sexually assaulting Ashlynne before hitting her over the head with a tire iron, killing her.
Assaulted as a child
When she was about Ashlynne’s age, Pfeiffer said, she was staying with her cousin in Red Mesa, Ariz., when a relative came to her in the middle of the night and told her he would take her back to her parents’ home.
Instead, he sexually assaulted her in a car a couple miles away, she said. She managed to escape by running through mud and over hillsides, scraping her legs on her way back to safety.
“I somehow made my way back by just a little light from my auntie’s house,” she said. “She took me to the nearest phone booth and called my parents.”
Pfeiffer’s parents reported the kidnapping and assault, and another girl also came forward with a similar story about that relative.
She said he was tried in federal court, took a plea agreement and served several years in prison.
Although Pfeiffer got justice, she knows there are countless women and children among the Native population who never spoke up about their abuse. She said several of her family members have similar stories but never filed a report.
Pfeiffer said close family ties in tribal communities make reporting sexual assault difficult.
After she reported her relative to authorities, many in her father’s family stopped talking to her.
“Women become ashamed that they’ve been violated,” she said. “We have to strengthen each other in sisterhood among our aunties and our mothers, and this is something that we can come together and fight against.”
Pfeiffer said people living in the small rural communities on the reservations often don’t have access or knowledge about the resources that are available for them to report abuse.
Now she works with the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women to try to change this. She said she has studied traditional ceremonies that celebrate a girl’s transition into womanhood while educating them about how to protect themselves.
“That ceremony is so crucial where women are given direct tools,” Pfeiffer said. “If we bring that tradition back, our answers are there, in our songs, our ceremonies and our prayers.”
Corrine Sanchez, the executive director of Tewa Women United, a nonprofit that supports Native women, said her organization runs programs in schools to teach children about proper boundaries and how to stay safe and report if they are abused.
Unfortunately, she said, the bulk of the training takes place in dense-population areas because the small, rural communities and tribal areas around the state are hampered by a lack of resources.
“It costs two or three times as much to reach these areas,” Sanchez said. “When funding is tied to population, smaller rural communities lose. But these communities have higher substance abuse and violence rates.”
Shortage of officers
Tribal police are tasked with protecting thousands of square miles of the nation’s largest reservation.
Ivan Tsosie, police captain in the Navajo Police Department in Shiprock, said funding and the lack of infrastructure are chronic issues.
Only 38 officers – covering four shifts – respond to calls in the 4,500 to 5,000 square miles of the Navajo Nation where Ashlynne was abducted.
Tsosie said he has been recruiting new officers, but there isn’t enough money to hire them.
The vast landscape and unnamed, sparsely distributed dirt roads make it hard for officers to respond to calls quickly. Once a call comes in, it generally takes an officer more than two hours to reach the area where it was reported, Tsosie said.
“Then it can take another 30 minutes to an hour to find the exact location,” he said. “There are no street addresses out here. People will say, ‘I live seven miles south of the tree.’ ”
Often, the offenders have fled by the time police arrive, he said.
In the days since Ashlynne was killed, the Navajo Nation and other Native populations throughout the state have come together to grieve and to ignite the conversation about funding and other systemic failures that lead to the high rates of violence and sexual assault.
San Juan Chapter President Rick Nez said he hopes the tragedy will encourage the community to take a hard look at these issues for future generations.
“It’s time we take action,” Nez said. “It’s not a time to falter and look the other way. This is a time to straighten knees and stand up for our children.”
Pfeiffer echoes this sentiment and says she hopes her story, as well as Ashlynne’s, will help others and increase public awareness of sexual assault on the reservation.
“I can share my story and hope that it gives strength and courage to get away from the taboo of sexual assault and violence,” she said. “It plagues our communities.”