Navajo warriors, men & women – fight domestic violence 8-01

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Walking the Healing Path

Thomas Walker Jr., a Navajo Nation council delegate for Leupp, shares the loss of his sister to domestic violence.

Photo by S.J. Wilson

by S.J. Wilson
Leupp, Navajo Nation, Arizona (NFIC)

John Tsosie, his father, Ernie Tsosie Jr. and their companions Gerald Milford and Leanne Guy were at least halfway to Leupp from Birdsprings when Navajo Nation police vehicles began flying by, lights dancing. These four individuals have been walking across the Navajo Nation with a message against domestic violence in a walk they call “Walking the Healing Path.”

They were soon to learn that a Leupp resident had allegedly shot his wife and had barricaded himself in the Navajo Housing Authority house of his mother. Rumors were already circulating, as concerned community members gathered, worried about the mother and the couple’s children.

As the scenario continued to unfold, Leupp Chapter officials went on to host the planned domestic violence prevention rally and dinner in support of the walk, while lending assistance to a growing number of state, county and Navajo Nation law enforcement personnel and fielding calls from concerned individuals.

The irony that less than a mile away, an extremely dangerous domestic violence situation was playing itself

out was not lost on the gathering.

“This really brings the stakes home,” John Tsosie said. “I hope after this is over, this community can come together, realizing that domestic violence can happen any time, any place and to anybody.”

Victim becomes abuser
Domestic violence is a growing problem, Tsosie said – one that has gone unchecked and unnoticed for a long time. As a former victim and perpetrator of domestic violence, Tsosie said that it is up to abusers to take a stand and stay strong in an effort to break the cycle.

Tsosie painted a frightening picture of his father as an abuser – an abuser of alcohol, of his wife, and sadly, of his own children. When he grew up and became involved in his own relationship, he became an abuser himself.

“I came to a point in my life where I had to make a decision,” Tsosie said. “My fiancé gave me an ultimatum. God gave me an ultimatum. It was up to me to make a better life for myself, for my family and for my people. It was a difficult climb to the top.”

“I wasn’t always a drinker or an abuser,” Tsosie continue. “I had to find myself again.”

Tsosie’s memories of childhood included his father yelling, arguing and drinking. He grew up with the fear of what was going to happen next, and where he and the family would be sleeping that night.

“My mother always made me promise never to drink, to never use drugs, never to abuse a woman,” Tsosie said. “I used to tell her, ‘Don’t cry, I’ll take care of you.’”

Sadly, he eventually broke all three promises to his mother.

He advised fellow parents to be careful what they say and do in front of their children.

“What we are shouts louder than anything we can say,” Tsosie said.

The cycle continues
Ernie Tsosie Jr. confirmed the frightening image his youngest son remembered of him – so different than the image he presents today. Sadly, he too had been the victim of domestic violence – and his actions as he grew older ensured that his own wife and children would be drawn into the cycle.

“When my son tells the stories of what I used to be like, it hurts me,” Ernie Tsosie said. “I should never have put my family through those things. But one day I gave it up. I came home, and my whole family was gone. I got scared, I thought I’d chased them off.”

He remembers this day being a Sunday, as he’d just come off a Saturday night binge.

“I got down on my knees and prayed hard. He heard me.”

Tsosie said that everyone must find their own way to support their effort to break the cycle of abuse.

“It must come from the heart. It must have spirit and culture. You have to have your own way,” Tsosie said.

“I remember when my son Ernie (Ernie Tsosie III, of James and Ernie fame) was a little boy, I was yelling at my wife. She went to the side of the house and got a big rock and threw it at me. I started towards her, but Ernie stood in front of her with his little fist up like this, with tears running down his face. He was just a little boy, but he wanted to protect his mom.

“I hurt him in his heart and soul,” Tsosie said. “He’s the one I almost lost. He began drinking and doing drugs. He’d come home and want to fight me. ‘It’s you’re fault I’m like this,’ he would tell me. After one such argument, he took off, and I went to the front of the trailer and sat on the porch, with my head down, thinking, ‘why did this happen?’ I felt a little arm go around my shoulder. It was my grandson, Ernie’s son. ‘I’m sorry for what my dad did,’ he told me, and I realized that he too was caught in the vicious cycle.”

As Ernie the Third talks about after every performance, he too found release in prayer.

“Just by looking at him, hearing what he says and does [as a comedian], you wouldn’t know he had a problem,” Tsosie said. “I am proud of all my kids—they are all working against domestic violence in their own way. My daughter, Leanne

Guy, runs a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“Women are the most sacred thing,” Tsosie said. “I always apologize to women as a man. I want to say I’m sorry that you were hurt by a man.”

Chapters lend support
Council Delegate Thomas Walker thanked the Tsosie family for sharing their stories, and presented a hand-woven rug to John Tsosie as a token of his appreciation.

“As I think about the situation we have going on here in Leupp, I feel encouragement that there’s a message we can take home with us,” Walker said. “We are facing a big issue, bigger than families or communities. When I hear the words, ‘using prayer,’ I am reminded of our elders who say that when you are overwhelmed with an issue bigger than you, your family or your community, then you must look to the Creator.

“Sadly, we resort to violence or harsh words when we feel threatened or afraid.”

Walker outlined the statistics of violence – including the fact that every 20 seconds, someone dies from domestic violence.

“This walk is a powerful gesture; a message in itself. It has drawn strong support from people – elders, people with good causes, Navajo Nation representatives. We can expect miracles. We can paint a picture of a community free of violence.”

Domestic violence hit home for Thomas Walker and his family in 1989, when his sister was killed. Forensic evidence showed that she had been run over by her truck after a fight ensued between her and her boyfriend.

“There were no witnesses. The person responsible for her death is free today, out living his life. My sister paid the ultimate price of violence – the loss of life.”

Council Delegate Leonard Chee referred to the ongoing police standoff in Leupp, saying that it was unfortunate that domestic violence happens every day, to anyone, anywhere every day.

“I just hear names and it is unbelievable that it has come this far. I appreciate your theme, ‘Walking the Healing Path.’ It is very beautiful, and I want to thank you for bringing that hope, that restoration of life. I want to thank you for that, and to wish you well. You have our prayers.”

Chee went on to point out that it isn’t always the man in a relationship that is doing the abusing.

“In some cases, it is the woman in the relationship that could be the abuser, the one who instigates verbal abuse or even becoming violent. I’ve seen it. We need to look at both sides and look for solutions. But the real victims in this whole situation are the children, as we have heard from John.”

Studies in Navajo Country show that children are not learning effectively, Chee said, citing home environment as a real problem.

“Children are not focusing; they are not concentrating,” Chee said. “We have parents not listening to their children. Many are so overwhelmed and depressed about what happened at home the night before. There is drinking and a fight, maybe they had to leave the home, yet they are expected to be in class on time and ready to learn, but it isn’t happening.

“It is good that we are talking about this,” Chee said. “We need a higher power to intervene. I am glad we are talking about prayers and intervention in our lives.”

Chee said that he wished there had been more people at the chapter house to hear the Tsosies’ presentation, but encouraged everyone who did attend to take the message and talk to others.

“We can all take this message and talk to five people about it, ten people about it. Let’s start talking about it and stop domestic violence.

Chee, who has been married close to 25 years, offered insight into his own approach to a working relationship.

“If you always want to have the last say so or upper hand in every discussion, it’s never going to work,” Chee said.

“There is a time when you have to say, ‘all right, let’s get over it and go on to other things. I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to shut up.”

The silence must be broken
Mona Seamon of the Office of the First Lady said that Vicki Shirley has supported the walk from day one. Seamon has attended many of the stops along the way.

“The stops are great, but we haven’t had walker support,” Seamon said. “When we’ve walked outside the reservation, we’ve had the support of walkers from other tribes and peoples. But walking support from our own people hasn’t been there for the most part. I find that unfortunate. We do that to each other all the time. I encourage people to get out and support each other.”

Isabelle Walker, an assistant chief of staff to Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., and sister of Thomas Walker Jr., spent time walking, illustrated the frequency of domestic violence by counting her steps, realizing that every three seconds someone in this country is victimized.

“One, two, three – there’s another one, one, two, three – there’s another one,” she said. “As I walked, I remembered my sister, Sylvia Ann Walker. I was thinking that for so long we’ve been in denial, and it’s taken so long to heal. I thought of how my sister was taken prematurely, and how much we miss the children that she was never able to give us – my nephews and nieces.”

Former victim finds healing in walk
Radmilla Cody, former Miss Navajo Nation, said that her participation in the walk was “a beautiful thing.”

Cody, a survivor of domestic violence, joined the walk outside of Flagstaff the morning of July 18, and continued to walk with the Tsosies on the 19th.

“This is a family come together from their experiences as former perpetrators and victims of domestic violence,” Cody said of the Tsosies. “They are sharing their stories to bring to light an awareness of this societal ill that is plaguing the Navajo Nation and our country as a whole.”

“It takes a lot of courage for someone who was once an abuser to confront his unhealthy behavior – to say, ‘what can I do to make my life and the lives of my family better, so that they are no longer mistreated or living in fear,” Cody continued. “I commend them for using their personal experiences to make a difference – in ending the cycle of abuse and violence.”

As a woman who has suffered abuse, walking with men who have been both abused and abusers was a very powerful experience.

“For me, this is a sign of hope and it makes me feel even stronger about people realizing that they can bring about change through recognizing the mistakes from their lives and learning from them,” Cody said. “When you can give back in this way, you instill the message of hope to the man who is abusing his family, or to the victim of domestic violence, that they deserve love and respect without pain in a physical, mental or spiritual manner.”

Cody said that she was really excited to participate in the walk and to be there with the walkers.

“Even as survivors, we are still healing, and what better way to do that than in walking, sharing our stories, and connecting with the earth?” Cody said. “It’s just beautiful. We are all sharing the same dream to end the endemic cycle of abuse. We must all work together and collaborate. It takes a team effort to heal society.”

John Tsosie thanked the many people who have come out to show support, and offered special thanks to the First Lady and her staff, the Office of the President and Vice President, the Division of Social Services and Behavioral Health, Shi Heart Home Health, Amnesty International and Jerry’s Café.

Walking the Healing Path will continue across the Navajo Nation through August 15.

Information on how to join the walk can be found,
On The Net:


Victims or perpetrators of domestic violence can find links to help,
On The Net: