Life with the Navajo—Part VI. Terror off the Rez

Being a young, single woman required a certain amount of caution on my part. Men sometimes interpreted my friendliness as an invitation for sex. All too frequently someone would knock on my door in the dead of night.

One of those times, a drunken man came to my front door and yelled, “I know you are in there. Let me in.” He pounded furiously. I held my breath, hoping that I had remembered to lock the door before I went to bed. After a few minutes, the yelling stopped and silence returned.

Just as I started to relax again, I heard the intruder outside the back door of my apartment. He banged on the window above the mattress on the floor where I lay. Before I could jump up and call the Navajo police, he yelled, “If you don’t let me in, I’m going to smash the window.” And that’s exactly what he did.

The window came crashing onto the mattress, shattering into hundreds of shards as the glass hit my body. My neighbor, an administrator at the boarding school, came over after hearing my screams. By the time she arrived, the drunken man had disappeared.

My neighbor drove me forty miles in the night to Sage Memorial Hospital in Ganado to have the glass splinters removed out of my scalp, back and arms. The next morning the drunken man’s family drove him to the same hospital to have his gashes stitched up. The family apologized to me and made arrangements to have the window repaired.

The same neighbor who drove me to the hospital informed me that I should put a curtain over the window next to the shower in the bathroom. Even though the window was frosted, she said that people outside could still see the silhouette of the person in the shower.

In the evenings, around the time I took my bedtime shower, she had seen pickup trucks parked outside my apartment. I found this piece of information hard to believe. The next night I peeked out my window and saw two pickup trucks parked directly facing my house. From then on, I showered in the dark until I could find a piece of cloth to use as a curtain.

Navajo men were usually gentle and respectful. It was only under the influence of bootlegged alcohol—purchased off the reservation—that they could become aggressive and unpredictable. Even my closest friends turned into strangers when drinking. Probably the most terrifying experience during those two years with the Navajo involved alcohol.

My best friend on the reservation, Juanita, worked as a teacher aide in one of the classrooms at the Chinle Boarding School. After Juanita received a raise in her salary, she suggested that we go together to buy new clothes at her favorite store in Farmington, New Mexico, about two hours from Chinle. Juanita drove us in her brand new red pickup truck.

On the road to Farmington, New Mexico. The foreboding sky gave a hint about what awaited us that night.

I had never seen Juanita drink alcohol, but that evening in our hotel she suggested that we celebrate our weekend in the “big city” by going to a nightclub where we could get alcohol—in contrast to the reservation where alcohol was prohibited.

Juanita drank a few beers as we sat watching topless dancers perform. I ordered a bottle of beer, but only took a few sips, having never developed much interest in alcohol. Two scruffy-looking white men sat down next to us. Juanita was unusually friendly with the men, having lost all her normal reserve once she began drinking.

Eventually the men asked us if they could come with us to our hotel. I said a firm “no” before Juanita could answer. They spoke in hushed voices to each other, then turned to us and said emphatically that we needed to take them home since their ride had already left.

I told the men that they could take a taxi, but Juanita insisted we take them home. I protested vehemently. She became angry with me and said, “Look, don’t tell me what to do. It’s my truck. I’ll do what I want. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

The alcohol made Juanita lose her good judgment. Although I had an intense feeling of foreboding, I could not leave her alone with these men who looked like they were capable of doing something very bad. We all piled into the front seat of her red pickup.

Juanita drove while the two men sat in the middle, with me crammed next to the door on the passenger side. We drove through the town and into the countryside. No one spoke.

After about ten miles, the men said they needed to stop and take a leak. They huddled together in the dark and whispered to each other. Their voices were too low for me to understand. I told Juanita in Navajo that the men were bad and that I was scared. She laughed, but this time it was a nervous laugh.

The men got back into the truck. They said they lived just a little farther down the country road. It was dark outside. There were no lights. The men began to get malicious. One of them asked why we had refused to take them to our hotel and sleep with them, and did we think we were too good for them?

The man next to me lit a cigarette and began to burn the hair on my arm and laugh. I felt a sense of impending doom. At that moment, the man next to Juanita took the keys in the ignition and turned off the engine. The truck coasted to a stop. The man said, “I’m going to kill you, bitch, and take your truck.”

I tried to jump out of the truck but I wasn’t able to unlock the door on my side. Juanita also tried to escape. She jumped out of the truck, but the man next to her pounced onto her slim body and knocked her onto the ground. I saw him pounding her face with his fists and ripping off her clothes.

The man next to me got out of the truck on the driver’s side and dragged me out with him. Within seconds of landing on the ground, he tried to knock me down. I held onto the side of the pickup truck with my left arm while he twisted my right arm behind my back and pulled on my hair so that my head almost touched my arm in back. It was excruciatingly painful. I screamed, “You’ve broken my neck” and then went limp, feigning paralysis.

The man loosened his grip briefly, just enough time for me to spin around to free my twisted arm and yank myself out of his grasp. In the ensuing struggle, I managed to wriggle out of my bulky, unzipped ski parka that he had grabbed onto. Once I had freed myself, I ran for my life into the raw winter night, clad only in a short-sleeved shirt, slacks, and flimsy little party shoes that looked like ballet slippers.

I ran faster than I ever had in my life, my heart pounding, gasping for breath, praying that I wouldn’t stumble and fall in the darkness or twist my ankle. I could hear my pursuer’s footsteps close behind. He yelled and cursed me, letting me know all the hideous things he was going to do to me when he caught me.

As I ran for my life, I could hear Juanita’s screams of terror and pain while her assailant beat and raped her.

After a few minutes the distance between the man and me increased. I felt my chest was going to burst. The cold air burned my lungs. I jumped into a ditch beside the road and crouched beneath the tumbleweed. The man did not see me and kept running past.

A little farther down the road he stopped, then walked back to the truck. I held my breath as he walked past the place where I was hiding. He yelled to his partner that I had gotten away. His partner yelled back that they had to find me.

After a few minutes I saw the headlights on the truck. The men drove towards me. I crouched even lower in the ditch. The truck passed by, but then it drove back again. This time they pointed the truck sequentially in all four directions so that the headlights could scan the surrounding countryside. I was well camouflaged underneath the tumbleweed. They finally drove away.

When they were out of sight, I began to run again, both to keep from freezing to death and also to keep from being found. To my horror, I saw the lights of the truck approaching yet again. There was no place for me to hide. I lay down on the frozen ground. The truck stopped several yards down the road from me.

I heard Juanita’s voice, choked and strained. “It’s all right, Erica. You can come out. No one will hurt you.” I suspected that Juanita had a gun pointed at her head and that the men commanded her to say those words. I didn’t move. Eventually they drove away.

I began running again, this time well away from the road. I ran through the dried up cornfields, often tripping and falling. The moon came out from behind the clouds and gave faint illumination to the land. I was filled with horror and terror. I imagined that I was a Jew being hunted by the Nazis—a recurrent dream that I had had while living in Germany during my high school years. I tried to hum songs to myself to give me courage and subdue the terror. I ran and I ran. I ran in the direction of town, not daring to stop.

I ran until the first light of dawn when I saw a factory in the distance. I walked up to the big, chain-linked fence surrounding the factory and breathlessly yelled for help. A guard looked at me suspiciously but then let me in when I yelled that my friend had been raped and beaten.

I was half-frozen and bedraggled, with ripped shirt and pants. The guard threw a blanket around my shivering body, gave me hot coffee and called the police who appeared almost immediately.

I saw Juanita sitting in the back seat of the police car. Her face was badly bruised and swollen and her glasses were missing. She had on a long, dark, unfamiliar-looking skirt. She expressed surprise at seeing me, thinking that my neck had indeed been broken and that I was still lying in a ditch beside the road.

I got in the back of the police car with Juanita. As we hugged each other, she whispered in my ear that she didn’t want the police to know that she had been raped because she felt ashamed. She told them she had merely been beaten. She also did not ask that charges be pressed if the men were found because she was too fearful that they would stalk her and kill her in revenge. She had already divulged information in the nightclub about her address and place of employment, so tracking her down would be a simple matter.

We drove with the policemen to the scene of the crime on the country road outside of town. We found the spot with no trouble. My blue ski parka lay in the middle of the dirt road, along with Juanita’s black party slacks and her eyeglasses. The distance to the scene of the crime from the factory was almost 20 miles, the length of which I had run the night before.

After we finished filling out the paperwork at the police headquarters, we anxiously waited for one of the officers to bring Juanita’s red pickup truck over to us so that we could head home to the reservation.

Juanita insisted on driving, in spite of her state of agitation and her bruised and swollen face. As her hands gripped the steering wheel, she recounted what happened to her that night.

She said that after the men drove off with her when they couldn’t find me, they told her they were going to kill her and take her truck. She quickly invented a story about her father being a Navajo policeman with connections to the FBI. She convinced the men that if they killed her, her father would catch them at any cost. She swore that she wouldn’t tell the police if they let her go.

Between her tears, Juanita went on to say that the men dumped her off at the edge of town, and then drove off. From the waist down she had on only her torn underpants and her party shoes. She walked up to the first house she saw and rang the doorbell. The intense cold she experienced outweighed the feelings of shame and embarrassment.

A startled woman answered the doorbell. It happened to be the mayor’s wife. She took Juanita into the house, gave her several cups of hot coffee and a long wool skirt to cover her bare legs, and then called the police. They came to the house, picked Juanita up and took her to their headquarters for questioning.

While they were there, the police received a call regarding a red pickup truck that had been abandoned by the side of the road. They took Juanita to identify her truck. On the way back, they received the call from the night watchman regarding the distressed woman in the factory.

After telling her story to me while driving home, Juanita pulled over to the side of the highway, turned off the engine, and sobbed with her face in her hands. I reached over and put my hand on her shoulder. She pushed my hand away and said, “Don’t touch me. I feel dirty.”

I asked Juanita why she felt shame about being sexually assaulted since it wasn’t her fault. She let out a bitter little laugh and said that maybe it was her fault. Her Catholic boarding school for girls had taught her all about shame and guilt. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and then started up the engine and pulled back onto the highway. We drove the rest of the way home in silence.

Juanita never again mentioned the beating and rape. I wanted more than anything to help her through her pain, but she didn’t allow any mention of what happened that Saturday night in Farmington and said, “I just want to forget that it ever happened. I don’t want anyone to know.”

My heart ached for Juanita. Over the next few months, her infectious laugh and beautiful smile disappeared. She had a vacant look on her face. The warmth and spontaneity of our friendship shifted into a more restrained relationship. I would have given anything to help my traumatized friend. I offered to cover the cost of a traditional Navajo ceremony to help her retrieve her soul and heal her invisible wounds. She rejected the idea, not wanting anyone to know that she had been raped.

As soon as I got home from the ill-fated trip, I sat down on the floor in front of my upright loom and began weaving to calm my agitated mind, as the tears rolled down my cheeks. The rhythmic and repetitive hand movements and sounds of the hardwood comb tapping the weft down tightly into the warp had a hypnotic effect on my mind, creating a sense of peace.

I loved to weave. I had already woven five rugs in the style of Navajo saddle blankets and had almost completed my sixth. One of the Navajo families in town that I frequently visited had urged me to learn how to weave, especially if I wanted to “find a good Navajo man to marry.” The father, Hostiin, and his brother built me an upright, freestanding Navajo loom in my little apartment. It stood at the foot of my mattress where I slept.

The mother, Desbah, and her daughters taught me how to card wool from their relatives’ Churro sheep that had been sheared in the spring. Weavers use carding tools to brush the wool to remove any remaining dirt and to align the fibers in preparation for spinning.

Desbah and her daughters helped me learn the art of Navajo weaving. Hostiin and his brother built the upright loom at the foot of my bed.

The most difficult part of weaving was spinning the wool into yarn with the dropdown spindle that I twirled with my right hand against my thigh. When I had spun enough wool, Desbah wound the yarn up and down in large loops on the loom to make the warp. Since I hadn’t yet learned about the plants that I would need for dyeing the yarn, Desbah supplied me from her own stash. She also gave me handmade wooden tools that I needed in order to weave the Navajo rugs, including a thick comb for packing down the yarns that crossed in and out of the warp.

One of the Navajo saddle blankets that I wove hung on the wall above my bed.

Eventually I wove eight Navajo rugs during the two years that I taught at the boarding school. I usually wove in the evenings as a way to end my day and clear my mind before preparing for bed.

While exploring the vast and beautiful Navajo Nation, I bought a few stunning Navajo rugs at various trading posts, including the Hubbell Trading Post, famous for its 100-year-old history and its treasure trove of old Navajo jewelry and rugs. Another source of Navajo rugs came from gifts. During some of my weekend visits to my students’ hogans, a mother or grandmother would shyly present me with a handsome rug with intricate designs that she had woven. I treasured those Navajo rugs.

Weaving wasn’t the only way to clear my mind. Traditional Navajo dancing with the repetitive two-steps in the Round Dances, with the hypnotic drum beat in the background, provided a sure way to calm the mind of troubling thoughts.

On several weekends I danced during the night in the Enemy Way Ceremony, called Nidaa’ in Navajo, a healing ceremony for the Navajo warriors returning from their service in Vietnam. The ceremonial dances—often incorrectly referred to as “Squaw Dances”— served as a place for young men and women to meet and start a relationship.

Although I never entered into a romantic relationship with any of the men at the ceremonial dances I attended, I did meet a handsome older Navajo man who caught my attention. He walked unexpectedly into my life at the beginning of my second year of teaching school.


Life with the Navajo—Part VI. Terror off the Rez — 40 Comments

  1. This is one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever known. It is incredible that you were able to get away. Imagine the strength to be able to run 20 miles. It is wonderful to know that you were able to get away. I can imagine how much you wanted to help your friend, who must have felt beyond comfort.

    • Yes, Juanita was definitely “beyond comfort.” After more than twenty years had passed, Juanita finally got the help that she needed and is now at peace. I’m still thinking fondly of your visit. Love, Erica

  2. You may be wondering who I am. I’m tuned into your blog because of mutual friends, Bob Fies, Carl Rosenberg, and a former client April Tesorio.
    I no longer live in Taos, though i visit as often as i can.

    Here is a piece of music i hope you like. Some of the smarter lyrics i’ve heard and catchy tune.

    I’ve much enjoyed and appreciated your writing.
    Keep it going.
    KK, should you want to comment to me. I’ve not an email for you to write to.

  3. Dearest Erica,
    I touch myself so fully and deeply with your writing and sharing yourself. Thank you so much for sharing yourself and your wisdom in so many ways through your writing and in your life!! I inspire myself, strengthen valuable qualities, and birth new ones as a result. I want you to know that the inspiration and blessings I experience as result do not stop with me . . .I forward these blessings and wisdom to my clients, friends, and community . . .I see us as vessels to allow the flow of wisdom to continue on throughout our communities and humanity. (Thank you, internet.)

    I appreciate your courage, passion, compassion, and thriving spirit!! I have blessed myself greatly to be in your path . . .
    Love, Rebekkah

    • Dearest Rebekkah, I can’t tell you how happy I am to know that my stories touch you deeply. When I finally decided to write the stories of my life—after all these years—my greatest intention was to let those stories be of service to others. And to hear that you are sharing my stories with your friends, clients, and community makes me smile, knowing that I made the right decision to share my life with the world. With love and gratitude, Erica

  4. Balancing the horrifying story with sharing how when you got home you sat on the floor and began weaving to return to some kind of peace particularly resonated with me. Love how your writing is filled with wonderful gems of ways to heal!!

    • Thanks for noticing and remarking, JoAnne. In retrospect, it looks like the entire trajectory of my life involved various modes of healing. Love, E

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I’m reminded of a quote, every time our heart breaks and heals it is then bigger. You lived a full life for 10. Please publish.

  6. Thank you Erica for sharing this. So many of us have dark and haunting memories similar to this. Thank you for helping us all come out of the closet of shame and self blade…

  7. My God, Erica, your body and now your psyche has received such grievous insults. Spirit must have thought you could take an awful lot of beatups to develop into the person you have become and help others, no matter what their experience, to heal. In this year of the woman, at long last, a timely offering. BTW, the Harwood Museum in Taos has a moving and magnificent tribute to the creative women in the area, displaying their art in thrilling intensity. The entire museum has evocative works by superb artists many of them portraying or stemming from our relationship as part of nature. I believe you and others would find it rewarding.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Bob. A patient once said to me, “You’ve been through damn near everything. Sometimes I think you go through all these horrific experiences so that you can help others who are suffering.” I think you are saying the same thing. The mountain lion spirit certainly picked a tough road for me. Thank you for the information about the Harwood Museum tribute. It sounds inspiring and uplifting. Many blessings, Erica

  8. I would add a rousing “Me too!” to this horrible night of traumatic experiences. I am so sorry that you, Juanita and it seems like so many women (including me) have had to go through these kind of experiences. Why do men think they can do this to women, and we are their prey of sorts? I am glad you were strong enough to escape this near death experience and it has undoubtedly helped you to be the wonderful person you are today. I continue to pray for all the women who don’t make it out alive and those who get lost emotionally from the trauma. It took a lot of courage to share this Erica, and I honor your decision to do so!

    • Yes, “Me too.” I thought of that as I wrote the story. I’m grateful that women are having the courage to speak up at last about these horrifying experiences. Many thanks for you comments, Patrice. Love, E

  9. Dear Erica, what Courage and strength and power you showed to fight your way out of this horrible situation and run through the entire night. Thank God you did not freeze to death and freed yourself from this dangerous terrible situation. What an incredible reminder to always trust our gut instincts and intuition when they say not to go somewhere or engage with someone. I am so glad you survived. What would we all do without our beloved Erica in our lives?
    Your Navajo weaving and stories about it are beautiful. Another fascinating story from you, showing the ever deepening currents of your life story. Publish , my girl!

    • I love your comments, Christine. Every time I haven’t trusted my instincts, I’ve gotten into trouble. But, if I had acted on my instincts, I wouldn’t have gone with the men, which would have meant that Juanita would be alone with those suspicious men. I felt that I couldn’t abandon her. I knew that she wasn’t in her right mind. What would you have done in a similar situation? Sending you love, Erica

  10. The fear and the calming..for some reason those are the only two words that come into my head.
    Your rug is amazing….what a special art/craft to learn.:)
    I look forward to all of your life stories that you tell in such special way
    Thank-You…..I am so relieved you escaped that night.

    • Thanks, Dorothy. Weaving is a great antidote for a tormented mind. It’s so calming and somehow symbolic of weaving all the parts of life into one tapestry. Love, E

  11. Thank you so much, dear Erica, for sharing this terrifying story full of courage and truth. The courage you showed not only in the past but also now by publishing it. I love how you connect it with your weaving, as life is weaving all our experiences into something beautiful, whole, where everything has space. Again, I am reminded of the Rilke poem-

    ….. Let it all happen to you: beauty and dread. Simply go — no feeling is too much — and only this way can we stay in touch. Near here is the land that they call life. You’ll know when you arrive by how real it is. Give me your hand.

    Love to you, Traude

  12. You have a very special life long gift….the recovery gene and escaping with your god given will and awareness also given. I cried at this “story” as you must have reliving it to write it. Yet here we all are years later finding our way from our pasts. Thats the true and real story you have showed us with your courage to share yours. Our turn now and so much love….jim

  13. Horrifying and heartbreaking. I’m glad to see your comment that Juanita eventually found a way through it and is smiling and laughing again. So glad you were able to get away, Erica.

    • Thanks for your comment, Margaret. Fortunately, I never developed PTSD from the horrifying experience. I think putting my focus on trying to help Juanita actually helped me indirectly. Being of service to others has always been a form of healing for me.

  14. Close call.
    Love the rug photo.
    Do you still have any.
    I suppose we will hear about Juanita later.
    You are too much.
    Love from Mike and Carolyn and Carson

    • The fate of all those Navajo rugs in another story unto itself. As for Juanita, her life completely unraveled. She was deeply damaged emotionally. After many years of quiet suffering, she was able to rebuild her life. I visited her about 10 years ago and was relieved to see that she was smiling and laughing again. She found a way to make peace with her past through the patient and tender help of her new husband. Love to you, Carolyn and Carson.

  15. I really enjoyed reading this. I noticed that on the Navajo reservation there were signs saying “no alcohol permitted”. I thought that was a good rule. I enjoyed reading about your weaving and dancing after reading such a stressful story. We all need to be aware of our surroundings. You sure were brave that terrible night. Thank you.

    • It was such a terrible story that I almost didn’t post it, thinking that it might cause too much stress for the reader. But, then I decided to go ahead because it was part of that reality. Thank you for your comment.

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