Although the laws of the Navajo Nation are founded upon Navajo traditional principles, gender relationships have been transformed in ways that undermine women’s traditionally high status so that violence toward Navajo women have reached epidemic proportions. Compared to non-Native women within the U.S., Navajo women experience domestic violence and sexual assaults at a greater frequency and intensity. Within the Navajo Nation, women are also considered second class citizens.
A Navajo woman has yet to be elected President or Vice President of the Navajo Nation and very few women have served on the Navajo Nation Council. Recent public debates on the question of whether a woman should be president raises questions about whether or not tradition sanctions gender discrimination. Given that the Navajo people base their nation, communities, and families upon principles of matrilineality, it is crucial that women are recognized as citizens who contribute equally to, the well-being and prosperity of the Navajo Nation.
The principles of K’e underlie a sophisticated system of kinship based upon respect and which regulates interpersonal relationships, and is manifested in matrilineality, a concept that continues to be the foundation of Navajo society. In Navajo tradition, women’s and men’s roles are characterized as complementary, meaning that both sexes are important to the survival and perpetuation of the people. Both men and women have distinctive roles in the extended and nuclear families.
Further, although Navajo laws are based upon the principles of K’e and there are guidelines for leadership, these laws do not seemingly address the question of leadership and gender. The Commission has determined that illuminating women’s traditional roles within leadership must be addressed so that the Navajo people will be reminded of women’s important roles in Navajo society.
Further, a human rights framework requires that all human beings must treat each other with respect, dignity and equality. In order to restore the formerly high status of Navajo women and accord them their rightful places in Navajo society, it is necessary to revisit Navajo traditional, customary and common laws. The Commission must also determine in what ways Navajo women’s human rights have been violated.
Shifts in Navajo values around gender include questions of whether traditional Navajo society recognized genders outside of the feminine and masculine binary, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and how multiple genders functioned within Navajo society. Further, in 2005, the Navajo Nation Council passed the Diné Marriage Act, which bans same-sex marriage. This Act has raised questions about civil rights and human rights violations for those Navajos who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.
Navajo perspectives on traditional values and the laws based upon Navajo traditional, common, and customary laws have been informed and shaped by world events and the Navajo Nation is continually faced with the challenges of living in a modern world. Given that Navajo citizens insist upon equality and equal treatment for all Navajo citizens, it becomes necessary to critically reflect upon the intersections of Navajo traditional, customary and common laws with gender in ways that ensure the civil and human rights of all Navajo citizens.