The Talking Way

In Navajo country, traditional justice, modern violence, and the death penalty collide in a debate unlike any in America.

Deirdre Dale, who according to her father looked more like a china doll than a Navajo, was on her way to a pay phone near her family's trailer in Gallup, New Mexico, when she hitched a ride from two men and a woman in a baby blue Buick LeSabre. The men had been drinking, and their first stop once the girl was in the car was to get more liquor. While the men were gone, the woman—a grade-school teacher—accused 16-year-old Deirdre of flirting. Hearing the two screaming, the men dove back into the car and began punching Deirdre. She fought back, and things escalated.

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When Deirdre didn't come home, her parents filed a police report. Then they sought the help of a medicine woman, who spread the deep-red dirt of the reservation on the floor, had a vision, and wrote part of it in the soil. She could see all of what had happened to Deirdre but didn't want to tell. When Deirdre's father, Wallace Dale, demanded answers, she told him that his daughter would show up in a few days.

The teen's body was found, strangled and burned, in a ravine seven days later; nearby were a beer can, a white sock, and a clump of hair caught on some weeds. The Gallup medical examiner's office tagged the body "Jane Begay," a common surname among the Diné, or The People, as they call themselves.

Wallace Dale tells the story of his daughter's death in clipped, even sentences; the only time his eyes mist over is when he talks about how the anniversaries of her birth and death still get to him. And the only time he laughs is when he reminisces about growing up traditional in the remote folds of the reservation's Chuska Mountains. His mother hewed to Navajo dress and the ancient creation stories; his father, a Comanche, practiced the healing arts of medicine men. The family raised sheep and horses, and grew corn, squash, and beans. There was no running water, electricity, or gas. "It was a lot of work but fun, and we learned a lot from it too," Dale says. "I always held on to their ways. Without them, we all would have been lost."

But after Deirdre was murdered, tradition could not keep Dale anchored. He got sick; bills piled up; his marriage fell apart. He was consumed by fantasies of revenge, and he came to believe that his people's tradition was getting in the way of justice for Deirdre. It was time, he decided, for the Navajo to embrace the death penalty.

there's something timeless and isolated, something that outsiders often find romantic, about the Navajo reservation, where roughly 168,000 tribal members live in a space the size of West Virginia. Grandmothers visit the trading posts in velvet shirts and long skirts, scarves fastened beneath their chins against the desert sun. Though pickup trucks are ubiquitous, many families still walk their sheep to summer and winter camps, through sandstone slot canyons and unnamed valleys dotted with sagebrush. The Nation's official seal features 48 outward-pointing arrowheads in an unbroken circle, symbolizing the Navajos' unique relationship with the United States: Never broken up, never truly defeated, the tribe has clung to its sovereignty, its culture, and its harsh, beloved homeland.

None of that, however, has insulated the Navajo from cataclysmic levels of violence. The violent crime rate on the reservation, where 60 percent of the population is under 25, is sharply higher than the national average; alcohol, drugs, poverty, and a creeping shift from traditional clan culture to gang culture have fueled an epidemic of lethal beatings, stabbings, and execution-style shootings. It is hard to find anyone on the reservation who has not had a family member murdered. Yet whenever federal prosecutors have considered seeking the death penalty in a murder case on the reservation, the Navajo have objected. The Nation's "cultural beliefs and traditions value life in all forms and instruct against the taking of human life for vengeance," Herb Yazzie, the tribe's former attorney general (and now the chief justice of its Supreme Court), wrote to the U.S. attorney in New Mexico in 1998. Navajo custom views violence as a sickness that must be treated rather than as an evil that must be destroyed; the Navajo, for obvious historical reasons, also fear ceding to outsiders the right to decide their fate.

This conflict came into sharper relief with the 1994 federal crime bill, in which Congress expanded the death penalty but also included a clause allowing tribes to choose whether to "opt in." Ever since, tribes across the country have periodically been convulsed by the opt-in debate. But perhaps no tribe—and no other community in America—has wrestled with the question as often, as wrenchingly, and through as remarkable a process as the Navajo.

though used in small doses, words are considered powerful medicine in Navajo creation stories: The maternal grandfather of all the deities is the Talking God, whose purview includes the passing on of custom and tradition. Enormous distances between neighbors—there is only one person here for every 89 acres—and an individualistic streak have tended to keep Navajo family clans separated; disputes were traditionally worked out via gatherings where issues were talked through in public. It's a distinct form of problem-solving in keeping with Navajo morality, which emphasizes above all a return to social balance.

It was this custom that the tribal government's Public Safety Committee drew on when, in late 2003, it announced a series of public forums to examine whether the Nation should change its stance on the death penalty. Two years had gone by since Deirdre Dale's death as well as the murder of a nine-year-old girl and her grandmother, killed and dismembered by two men who wanted their truck. Federal prosecutors were seeking the death penalty in that case, something they had not done with Deirdre's killers, one of whom had been able to plead out to a 12-year sentence. (The other man got life without parole; the woman, four and a half years.)

Wallace Dale was one of the first people to speak when the talks began in the New Mexico outpost of Shiprock, a dusty town along the San Juan River named for the volcanic monolith that rises nearly 2,000 feet from the desert floor like a Navajo skyscraper. "My daughter Deirdre L. Dale was murdered on February 24, 2001," he told the Public Safety Committee in Shiprock's chapter house. When the crime is heinous, he said, execution "is not revenge." Photos of the meeting show Dale, holding up a picture of Deirdre, his face drawn and pale. He looks close to tears.

Kathleen Bowman, the director of the tribe's Public Defender's Office, understood Dale's torment. In her youth, she had been on the fence about the death penalty. Her grandfather had been robbed and beaten to death in Gallup; a nephew had been stabbed to death the night before his 23rd birthday; a cousin had been murdered in Phoenix. Two weeks before she was to take the Arizona bar exam in 1986, Bowman learned that her older brother had been killed by a drunk driver—her stepfather's nephew. "When my children told me, I screamed and cried, and it echoed through the law school," she says.

The next day, the boy who had killed her brother came to her mother's house, where everyone had gathered to mourn. "My sisters were angry," she recalls. "They didn't want to speak to him. They wanted him gone." At that point, something shifted for her. "I told my sisters, 'You can't think like that. It could easily have been one of our own brothers driving. It could happen to anybody, so you need to treat this person like a human.' That's when I realized that it's not about punishment."

Barely over 5 feet tall, with long, dark brown hair that she curls at the ends, Bowman tends toward self-deprecation. Her office defends Navajos, most of them young, many of them accused of vicious crimes. In giving me directions to her office in Window Rock, she offered no street address but told me to "head toward the rock" for which the town is named.

There were rocks everywhere—huge, rosy slabs and boulders to the east, north, and south, but I saw none with a hole in it. It wasn't until locals pointed me in the right direction that I noticed the massive gap in the sandstone. To find Bowman's office, I'd had to orient myself to the land and the four directions, something I found difficult in this otherworldly place. In trying to navigate among the Navajo—a people who are given to long silences during conversation, with a language so impenetrable it was used as code during World War II—it is easy to get lost.

"There are things that go on here that are pretty scary," Bowman says. "But I don't look at the defendants as evil." Some are "psychopaths, sociopaths, that we will never be able to help," but most of the crimes she sees are bound up with a near-desperate degree of drinking or drug use. "People are medicating themselves; it's almost like a hopelessness."

Bowman told me about a famous 19th-century legal case. In 1881, a Lakota Sioux named Spotted Tail was killed by another Lakota, Crow Dog. A tribal council was called, the families of the two men gathered, and it was agreed that in order to restore harmony to the tribe, Crow Dog and his family would pay the deceased's kin $600, eight horses, and one blanket. The U.S. territorial court threw out this judgment, put Crow Dog on trial, and sentenced him to death by hanging. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decreed that tribes were entitled to adjudicate crimes among their own as they saw fit. Congress then stepped in to strip tribes of that right, and today's tribal courts are restricted to dispensing fines and no more than a year of jail time, with major crimes mostly dealt with in federal court.

In Bowman's view, punitive justice is eroding the very traditions that are also the community's best hope for battling the epidemic of brutality. Navajo justice, she says, focuses on the concept of nályééh, or making society whole again; it has little use for punishment for its own sake. Several years ago, Bowman had a client who had stabbed his friend while both were drinking. "We were in tribal court, and I proposed an agreement that my client would pay restitution to the man he stabbed in the amount of $1,000—an amount that my client would definitely feel. My client had to make amends for his conduct, and the other person received restitution for his injury." The families agreed, and the charges were dropped. No one went to prison.

i met delores dale, Deirdre's mother and Wallace's ex-wife, at her trailer outside Gallup. Blue plastic butterfly clips held her black hair back from her eyes, which never met mine. We leaned against my car, looking down the dusty, rutted street Deirdre had walked on her way to the pay phone.

The pain that began when Deirdre went missing continued to burn through the family for years. Deirdre's older sister was racked by guilt: Before walking off that day, Deirdre had asked her for a ride to the pay phone, but she'd refused. Her brother, Doran, took to drinking and pot-smoking, became depressed, and was hospitalized off and on. At 4 a.m. the night before we met, Delores had learned that Doran was in the hospital again, his jaw shattered by fists and boots in an alcohol-fueled rampage. "He's in a bad way," she said. "He's still angry and sad. Makes me sad to see him like that."

A while back, Delores asked a medicine man to do traditional healing ceremonies for her son: the Blessing Way, which invokes the holy people to come around and bestow favorable conditions, and the Evil Way, whose chants are used for curing sickness caused by ghosts. It helped, she said, but what they also needed was grief counseling, and there were no such services nearby. Part of the problem was Navajo tradition's taboo against talking about death, she said: "It happens, the funeral is done, and they don't bring it up again." Delores had gone to the public hearings to say that custom, in this case, was doing more harm than good. "They don't want to talk about death," she said, "but our generation is different. You have to talk about it."

When the Public Safety Committee finally released its report on the hearings last year, it did urge more help for victims' families. It also recommended that the Nation continue to opt out of the death penalty. The hearings had not fully settled the matter; like Sisyphus' stone, the death penalty debate would someday be set tumbling again.

For Wallace Dale, though, the hearings did bring a kind of resolution. At the last of the talks, he rose to deliver what seemed to be his familiar exhortation: He still couldn't eat or sleep; he had $9,000 in medical bills; people who had lost a loved one to violence needed counseling. "It can ruin your life," he said. And then he said that he no longer wanted his daughter's killers put to death. "I'm changing my views," he explained simply, "because of the comments and opinions of the people."

"It took me a while," Dale says now. "I had to do a lot of thinking." He had crisscrossed the reservation to attend the hearings, and all those miles traveled, all the words spoken and heard, had changed him. He showed me a paper he wrote for his English 101 class at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, where he is studying electronics. "Our elders, our medicine men and medicine women, teach us that life is sacred, life is precious, life is holy," it read. "They teach us to pray for all people, all living creatures both great and small, and to have respect for our mother earth so that in return she will give us a good blessing. When a murder occurs, it is through prayers, compassion, love, respect, and dignity that harmony is brought back into our lives so that we may be whole again."

Last year, at age 44, Dale made the president's list at the polytechnic institute and was chosen an "Outstanding Student of the Year." He says the death penalty talks helped him heal; so did grief counseling in Albuquerque, and the Native American Church on the reservation. With the hint of a smile, he offers a term he picked up at school: "It's called 'eclectic learning.' Navajos learned silversmithing from the Mexicans; they learned to make pottery from the Pueblo. They take what's useful and it becomes theirs."

Some time ago, Dale went to see a medicine man who told him that Deirdre was in another world, a spirit world not far from this one, and that she had a job to do. When Dale cried, she worried about him, and that was holding her back. "I really thought about that, and I let her go," he says. "It seemed like a lot of weight was lifted off my shoulder."

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