In a tearful plea to her fellow Navajo Nation Council delegates, Amber Kanazbah Crotty announced for the first time publicly that she had been sexually harassed as an elected official and called for change.
Crotty — the only woman on the 23-person board — talked at a recent council meeting about vulgar comments and sexual innuendo directed at her by a colleague.
She also said she had been groped while working as a legislative district assistant several years ago.
She demanded that something be done.
Crotty’s plea came as women in Indian Country are being victimized by sexual assaults, rape and violence at more than twice the rate of other women in the U.S., according to the federal Department of Justice.
There were 330 reported rapes in Navajo Nation in 2013, a figure that is likely low because authorities believe the crime is underreported.
A study released this year by the National Institute of Justice found that 56 percent of Native women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
Crotty said she did not feel comfortable reporting harassment, and that she didn’t think she was protected under the Navajo Nation’s employment laws when she was a legislative district assistant — a political appointment.
“I cannot ask my people to be brave enough to tell their secrets, tell their stories, if I’m not able to do that either,” Crotty told The Associated Press. “It’s hard, it’s challenging. It’s shameful.”
Jared Touchin, a spokesman for Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates, said Bates is putting together training on sexual harassment. He said he is working with Crotty to hash out the details. Bates did not respond to requests for an interview.
Crotty, who sits on the council’s sexual assault prevention committee, said tolerance for sexist comments at the tribe’s highest level of government is a symptom of the overall culture on Navajo Nation.
She said no one spoke out when a delegate made an offensive sexual innuendo toward her during a budget committee meeting.
“It was interesting that I was the one who apologized to the committee when I was the one, in my opinion, being assaulted,” she said.
Deleana OtherBull, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said such behavior has become a vicious cycle that affects generations.
“It might start with enforcing very unequal gender assumptions, and then it really creates this culture where women are hypersexualized and that’s the beginning of rape culture,” OtherBull said. “There’s a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, a lot of self-blame. And it’s created this culture where it’s something that we know is happening but very few people speak out about it.”
Genevieve Jackson, who served as a council delegate from 1991 to 1999, said sexual harassment has been going on for years.
Jackson, now a commissioner in McKinley County, New Mexico, said she often heard sexist remarks from male colleagues and that she was ostracized for speaking out against them.
On one occasion her name was written on a men’s bathroom wall at the council chambers.
“I mean these are behaviors that are indicative of a junior high or sixth grade kid, and the fact that I had to deal with this coming from elected officials was really discouraging and just shocking,” Jackson said.
Jackson said she had to introduce an anti-domestic violence act several times before the council approved it.
Jackson and Crotty say most of their male colleagues have been respectful but the few who are not go unpunished.
“There has to be a safe place that’s beyond the political dynamics that an individual who’s put in this situation has the ability to talk about it and that something can be done,” Crotty said. “Nobody’s above the law.”