When Amber Kanazbah Crotty first went to work for the Navajo Nation, she was full of hope. She was passionate about education and health care, and wanted to help break the cycle of poverty that bound many Navajo families. Crotty hails from a long line of feisty women who, she says, “come from the land,” a reference to the arid ocher soil of the Navajo Nation and another way of saying: Her people are tough. Crotty studied American Indian law and history at the University of California, Los Angeles; she returned to Navajo and, with two young daughters at home, went to work as a legislative aide to a delegate in the Navajo Nation Council. Then, on a work trip several years ago, something happened that left her overwhelmed with doubt.
It was evening. Crotty and two other legislative aides were in a casino, encouraging their superior, a Navajo councilman, to stop drinking and return to his room so that he’d be prepared for his flight the next morning. Laughing, the councilman lunged at Crotty, stuck his hand up her shirt, and groped her breasts. Shaken, Crotty left the casino floor immediately.
Two of Crotty’s former co-workers say that she talked to them about the incident shortly after it occurred. But when she reported the incident to a supervisor, Crotty says, he shrugged it off and told her that it was beyond his pay grade. This was devastating, but, as other staffers who worked for the council at the time confirmed, not unusual. Another former aide said that nothing had been done after she’d complained of a councilman routinely texting her flirtatious messages late at night. Crotty had seen still another councilman looking at pictures of naked women on his iPad during committee meetings. “We didn’t feel like we could say something—not if we wanted to keep our jobs,” says Crotty, who is now 39. Sexual harassment in her workplace had been so normalized that most incidents passed unmentioned. “The silence was deafening,” Crotty recalls.
The extraordinarily high rates of violence against Native people have been well-documented: More than half of all American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced sexual violence, according to a National Institute of Justice–funded study in 2016. A related but little-reported problem involves sexual harassment and assault in tribal governments and businesses, which are usually the primary employers for Native people on reservations, and whose leadership positions are dominated by men. There are no comprehensive data on the prevalence of abuse in tribal workplaces, but Crotty and other national advocates for Indigenous women say they hear reports of such abuse regularly. LeAndra Bitsie, the chief executive of IML Training, has conducted leadership training sessions for some 150 tribal governments; she says that the issue of sexual harassment comes up often. A survey by the tribal newspaper of Oklahoma’s Muscogee (Creek) Nation this past October found that, of the poll’s 32 respondents, 25 percent said they were victims of sexual harassment in the tribe’s workplaces, and more than 40 percent said they had personally witnessed instances of sexual harassment.