Amber Kanazbah Crotty, the lone woman on the 24-delegate council, in July spoke publicly – and tearfully – about her experiences as a target of sexual harassment and assault. Addressing her male colleagues, Crotty said she has endured vulgar comments and sexual innuendo during her tenure on the council.
“It was not just comments, but also being physically violated,” Crotty said during a phone interview with ICTMN. “This was not comfortable for me to talk about. This was the last thing I wanted to say to the council because of the vulnerability and shame, but no woman, no man should have to be in this situation.”
Crotty’s comments come as women across Indian country are subjected to sexual violence at more than twice the national rate. A recent study by the National Institute of Justice revealed that 56 percent of Native women experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
On the Navajo Nation, more than 300 rapes were reported in 2013. Crotty believes sexual harassment in the workplace, if left unchecked, can lead to more severe acts of violence.
“We’re talking about rape culture,” she said. “The connection is there and it’s gut-wrenching. It hurts in the gut when you have to go through this behavior, and it certainly creates the environment for a rape culture.”
Just hours after Crotty spoke, Navajo President Russell Begaye launched a review of policy and how it is implemented in workplaces across the reservation. On August 1, Begaye, along with Vice President Jonathan Nez and Acting Chief Justice Allen Sloan, signed an executive order mandating sexual harassment training for employees of all executive divisions and departments, the judicial branch and local chapter service coordinators.
“We began immediately to collect information and study what the policies are and how they’re being implemented,” Begaye said in an interview. “I knew that what was in place – what was being implemented – we were not where we should be.”
The executive order instructs all tribal employers to review the Nation’s sexual harassment policy, which defines harassment, outlines procedures for addressing it and identifies disciplinary actions. Begaye said he wants all employees, from the Office of the President and Vice President all the way down to the community level, to attend training sessions and comply with the law.
“The idea is to provide a safe and productive workplace for all employees,” he said. “I want everyone to feel safe and be able to work in wholesome environments.”
The Navajo Nation Council, not included in the executive order, is working to address the problem on its own terms, Speaker LoRenzo Bates said. The Council took Crotty’s complaints “very seriously,” he said, and lawmakers will begin formal discussions next month.
“We are definitely concerned about this,” Bates said. “We are working closely with Delegate Crotty to move toward solutions.”
Although the executive order simply enforces existing laws, Crotty said it’s a step in the right direction. Shining a spotlight on the problem allows employers and employees alike to start talking, she said.
“All the departments are required to review the policy and implement what’s already on the books,” Crotty said. “But it’s taking it out of autopilot. It’s carving out a space to have these discussions so we can address the systemic violence that we see on the Navajo Nation.”
Crotty is a former Girl Scout and lifelong advocate for women and girls. She took office in January 2015 and sits on the Council’s Sexual Assault Prevention Committee.
Crotty said her remarks resonated across the reservation and she received dozens of messages and pleas from other women. Calling sexual harassment and violence in Indian country an epidemic, Crotty is demanding that change starts from the tribe’s highest offices.
“We need to look at what creates this environment,” she said. “We have people who think they can make comments or physically assault someone, and when this is happening at the highest levels of government, there’s no question why we’re seeing this in the communities.”
The Navajo are traditionally a matriarchal society, yet women continue to be underrepresented in Navajo government. As a lawmaker – but also as a woman – Crotty is calling for significant long-term solutions.
“The thread that binds us together as women should not be the violence that inflicts us all,” she said. “It should be health, community and family.”