277 – Navajo Nation Interview, with First Lady Phefelia Nez

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Sandie Morgan is joined by Phefelia Nez, the Navajo Nation First Lady. They discuss new initiatives the Navajo Nation has launched to address human trafficking and missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as how non-tribal entities can partner with tribal nations.

Phefelia Nez

Phefelia Nez was born in Keam Canyon, AZ and raised on Hopi Partition Land in Big Mountain, AZ. She is married to Jonathan Nez and mother of two children, Christopher and Alexander Nez. She is the daughter of David and Julia Herbert. She grew up in a traditional Hogan without modern amenities and has always spent time outdoors tending to livestock, the corn and vegetable field. Having ample outdoor space, she enjoyed a childhood of running, hiking and biking. Her favorite hobby growing up was reading and journaling. She earned Bachelor of Science degrees in Political Science (with an emphasis in Comparative and International Politics) and Criminal Justice from Northern Arizona University as well as a Master of Public Administration at NAU. She is also an alumni of ASU Lodestar Center’s Generation Next Nonprofit Leadership Academy Class V.

Key Points

  • Tribal Community Response Plan to Missing and Unidentified Persons four guidelines:
    • Law Enforcement
    • Victim Services
    • Media and Communications
    • Community Resources
  • The generation of individuals who experienced a loss of land, loss of culture, and loss of family integration continue to affect families and create vulnerabilities.
  • The Office of the First Lady and Second Lady have an emphasis on building a resilient child, which includes educating the community and modeling it for children.
  • Promoting research in Navajo Nation can provide answers to prevention of human trafficking and missing and murdered indigenous women.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 277, Navajo Nation Interview, with First Lady Phefelia Nez.

Production Credits [00:00:10] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:36] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:38] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, what an honor we have today to be able to welcome an incredible leader with us who’s gonna really help us to expand our perspective in so many ways and really look at how partnership. Of course, we talk about so much the importance of partnership and being able to work across organizations, governments and of course, most importantly, people. Today, I’m so honored for us to have a first lady Phefelia Nez with us. First Lady Nez was born in Keam County, Arizona, and raised on Hopi Partition Land in Big Mountain, Arizona. She is married to Jonathan Nez and the mother of two children, Christopher and Alexander. She is the daughter of David and Julia Herbert. She grew up in a traditional Hogan without modern amenities and has always spent time outdoors, tending to livestock, the corn and vegetable field. Having ample outdoor space, she enjoyed a childhood of running, hiking and biking. Her favorite hobby growing up was reading and journaling. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in political science with an emphasis in comparative and international politics and criminal justice from Northern Arizona University, as well as a Master of Public Administration at NAU. She is also an alum of ASU Lodestar Center’s Generation Next Nonprofit Leadership Academy. First Lady Nez, what a pleasure to have you with us on the show.

First Lady Nez [00:02:11] Thank you for having me.

Sandie [00:02:12] I feel like I just saw you recently. Oh, I did. I was over there. Your bio is so much more meaningful now to me from just that visit and meeting so many other Navajo leaders like yourself and understanding that your bio represents your background and the traditions that bring so much to building family in the context of the Navajo Nation. So it inspires me and I’m really appreciative that you’re with us today for the podcast.

First Lady Nez [00:02:54] Oh, I was going to say, yes, it’s only been, I think, a little over a week since we’ve seen one another at the Navajo Nation Ensure Justice conference that we had in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Sandie [00:03:05] That was quite an opportunity, and it was very connected to one of the young men who became a student at Vanguard. Matthew Holgate went with us at the Global Center. Except for during COVID, we always do a study abroad. And Matthew was on one of our teams when we went to Argentina and did an Ensure Justice conference in a northern province of Argentina. And on the plane, on our way home, he asked to sit with me for a while and we had a couple other adjunct faculty and he would move around and later we compared notes and we discovered he asked us all the same question: Will you come to Navajo Nation and do an Ensure Justice conference? And through all of COVID, Matthew was diligent and persistent that we bring that conference to his area. And your focus on family really resonated with his goals. And so that theme was to build a resilient child. Can you tell us a little bit more about your focus on building strong families?

First Lady Nez [00:04:35] And so from the office of the First Lady and Second Lady, we chose to have that as a platform. And when we say focus back on the home and the family, that really takes us back to the institution of the household. And just my academic studies and just from some of the work that I’ve done since college and up to now, you know, you look at all the things that come out of Navajo Nation data, like what afflicts homes and families. And we talk a lot about abuse, neglect, substance abuse, drug abuse, and then, of course, the mental health aspects of our people. And so then you start thinking about how many of our children go into foster care and how many of them just grow up and through some very challenging environments. And so when it comes to the criminal justice system just in talking with social services, public safety and some of the other departments that we have, you know, it’s really when we look at prevention and that really goes back down to the childhood of all of us and the type of homes that we grow up in. And so I’ve always looked at it as well, if we don’t ever want our children to end up grown up in environments like that or even ending up in the criminal justice system later on in life, then we really need to restore and kind of strengthen our parenting skills and just the environments of our homes.

Sandie [00:06:12] You’ve been a very vocal advocate for family, and when you began to address the connections, the overlap of the abuse issues and vulnerability to human trafficking, you actually started taking more action on human trafficking. And because of that, the Navajo Nation received a presidential award for extraordinary efforts to combat trafficking in persons. My understanding around prevention is if kids are safe at home and are in a very resilient community, they will have less vulnerability to that. But can you talk just a little bit about that award and what it represents.

First Lady Nez [00:07:08] The human trafficking award that was given to the Navajo Nation back in October of 2020, that was really to acknowledge the council’s passage of the human trafficking legislation. And we’re one of, I don’t know if there’s any other tribe across the United States who has passed legislation against human trafficking. But that’s really what it was for. And so with the Navajo Nation Ensure Justice conference that we did, you know, it’s we’re still at the I guess, at the beginning stages of really educating our communities on what human trafficking is and just bringing more awareness to that. And in another related topic, you know, we talk about missing and murdered indigenous peoples all across the United States of America, and that’s been elevated to the national level. And so there’s when you look at both of those instances in terms of missing persons and then homicides and then you add in human trafficking, there is an overlap. We just don’t know how much of an overlap. And so I’m personally been more involved with the missing and murdered indigenous peoples initiatives and at the state level for New Mexico. And then of course on our own Navajo Nation and working with the in creating a tribal community response plan for missing and unidentified persons.

Sandie [00:08:41] So, I know it’s not completely finalized, but you talked about that response plan last week at the Ensure Justice conference. Can you kind of do a brief overview of your expectations for how that will help?

First Lady Nez [00:08:59] Yeah. So the Tribal Community Response Plan for Missing and Unidentified Persons for Navajo Nation is really looking at assistance level with what we did with the mapping of the entire criminal justice system when it comes to the response to a missing persons case. And so you start at the initial report then to dispatch and how it goes on down the line from there to investigations, how our emergency management responds to it, and in bringing in, you know, listing all the partners who get involved at every step all the way down. And so then there’s always a determination whether that, you know, missing persons is not a crime in itself. But at some point there needs to be determination made whether it is a criminal case or not. And if it is, then it goes over to criminal investigators and for tribal lands or some of the time that also involves the FBI. And so there’s federal agencies who do get involved in the investigation and then the prosecution who will take the case. And then not every case that becomes a federal case, and some of them, they do have declamations. And when those happen, they return back to the Navajo Nation. And then, of course, that goes on down to the sentencing aspects of it. And then the whole other conversation on unidentified persons that revolves around finding human remains, or, you know, all of that, or even people in different institutions who have no identifications on them then trying to find out who they are. So it’s a whole mapping of that. But the TCRP itself consists of the development of four guidelines. There’s law enforcement, which involves all this stuff that I just said about the mapping of the systems and the different agencies involved in it. And then there’s the victims services. That’s the thing you look at who’s providing what type of services all the way down the line. And then the other one would be the media. The media and communications. And the last is the community outreach or community resources guidelines.

Sandie [00:11:15] Fascinating. And when we were at Ensure Justice and the director for Criminal Investigations contributed a little more detail. I was really encouraged by the same word that you just used, partnerships and bringing together partners in our community that are very diverse and it feels like the opportunities for collaboration are growing in this. I have kept the presentation that you did at our Ensure Justice conference here at Vanguard in 2021 when we all had to be just online. And you talked about a lot of the challenges that increase vulnerability. And part of that was historical. Would you outline that a little bit for us?

First Lady Nez [00:12:16] So in terms of historical challenges, I think you’re very for every tribal or indigenous peoples and in any place, I guess, but here in the United States, we would be talking about the loss of lands, the loss of culture, and but the one that had the most impact on us, I think, would be just the loss of children having the opportunity to grow up with their parents, being around them on a day-to-day basis. And I say that because you can have loss of land, but when you separate children from families and that’s what happened when it became when when we went under the boarding school years, there’s children who were separated from their parents and their relatives, their communities for, you know, a school year stretch at a time. And when you do that, they never get to see their parents modeling for them what a parent should, should be and how they should interact and bond with their children. And they never got to see what a home environment and extended family, how all of that built into community. They weren’t exposed to that. And so from tribal perspective, we always say there’s a whole generation lost who experienced that. And then, of course, there’s a lot of things that happened while they were at those institutions. So when they return back home and some and a lot of them, they came back with the loss of language as well. They never got to participate in a lot of the practices and traditional aspects to what family life is supposed to look like in the Navajo native culture. And so when they returned, they had you know, they got married, they had their children. And so just even that one instance of, you know, just that that speaks volumes to why we have a lot of us who grew up with maybe alcoholic people in our families, a lot of incarcerated people. And I always say it’s because we didn’t have either with our parents or grandparents somewhere down the line who never was given that opportunity to educate themselves on what a home life is supposed to be, what a marriage means, and how, you know, how you interact with a spouse and you know the important things when it comes to parenting and just the development of a child. And I think that’s where a lot of that impact was made. And so now we’re trying to turn the tide on that and really put an emphasis back on why it’s so important that we talk to our children about what a marriage is and to model those things for them, and then also to educate ourselves and model it for our children what, you know, positive parenting is all about. And just the importance of having those strong connections at home, where they bond, where they have people who love them, who provide for them and who just encourage and support them.

Sandie [00:15:32] That is something that I saw you demonstrating and modeling as you brought your children with you for lunch. And it was very endearing and encouraging to see in your leadership role that your children are not sidelined, but they’re part of demonstrating that. I really want to talk just for a minute about the boarding schools, because our study team of faculty and students made a tour, a listening tour, a learning tour, and one of our stops was at a closed boarding school. And my friend and colleague, Matthew’s dad, walked us around the grounds where he was taken in first grade and he showed us where when he was inducted into the school. I’m not sure the right terminology to use, but here’s the room where they shaved his head and he had no idea that was going to happen. And here’s the dorms where a six, seven year old is taken from family and now they’re asked not to speak Navajo they need to assimilate and learn English. And when the school day is done, they go back to the auditorium and watch movies in English. There was great sadness in his face and voice as he showed us that physical evidence of his experience. But he wanted us to understand the impact of that and why he has been so supportive of everything his son Matthew has been doing to address the kinds of issues around prevention and human trafficking and just in general. And one of the most interesting presentations at Ensure Justice was Dr. Brenda Navarrete on child resilience. And she included in that integrating cultural resilience and embracing and celebrating culture. And I was very encouraged by all I saw the Navajo Nation, Miss Navajo Nation, Miss Western Navajo Nation and the cultural competitions that were brought into that. And I don’t think my listeners know what happens at a Miss Navajo competition. Could you tell us just a little bit about that?

First Lady Nez [00:18:20] So our Miss Navajo Nation pageant, really the mission for them is really to keep a focus on the retention of Navajo culture and Navajo language and just the teaching of the values that have always been a part of Navajo Society. And so, you know, it’s a week long pageant held every fall and it does start off with butchering. And then they go on to cooking some of our own traditional foods and then they also include a modern and traditional talent portions. And then there’s also an interview portion. But in it all, really, it’s to get, you know, just to really get a sense of how much they know about Navajo traditional culture. And I always say Navajo philosophy as well, because they’re going to be the ambassador for Navajo Nation and those aspects, right. Just to have a vast amount of knowledge and skills just pertaining to Navajo culture and using Navajo language. And then of course, they always say they also come in with their own, you know, they talk just the way they carry themselves, their attitude. And a lot of that is established by Navajo philosophy.

Sandie [00:19:40] They were amazing representatives, ambassadors, as you call them, and were inspiring very much to us. Wow. I have so many more questions. I would like to talk briefly about the role of research. When you presented a couple of years ago here for our conference, you talked about the role of research and the things that we need to do. You had recommendations and supporting data gathering capacity and how do you see those recommendations as we move out of COVID and have more opportunity for collaboration?

First Lady Nez [00:20:28] To the Navajo public, we really encourage our young people and even not just young people, just to all people, to continue to educate themselves in their lifetimes. And a lot of research is done. And that’s another thing that we also encourage. You know, we want our students to come back and to do research for Navajo Nation so we can get a better understanding of what the landscape really looks like. And like, for example, for the TCRP, right, we’re talking about all these things in terms of the criminal justice system and which agencies do what, where along the way. And then, of course, in terms of victim services and everything else on down the line. But it’s the response plan, right. This is like after something has already happened and it seems like a lot of our activities here on Navajo that it focuses on those areas. It’s always about coming in right after something has already occurred and then the treatment services that all of that follow. But when you look at preventing those things you have to get a very good understanding of why are these things happening. And, you know, who are these populations and what is it that sets them up for these type of scenarios to occur? And once we have a very good understanding of that, then you can build a very good prevention strategy around that. But I always say, you know, we don’t have that peace right now. And that was the same thing with the missing and murdered indigenous peoples initiatives. We don’t understand fully who goes missing and why do they go missing and what is it that needs to be done to really prevent or reduce those numbers? And so that’s where research comes in. And then the other aspect would be, you know, you brought it and you’re talking about resilience. How do you build resilient families or communities or tribes? And that’s another I mean, just understanding some of these things in terms of tribal peoples, it would add a lot to building better prevention systems, intervention systems, and then maybe we’ll finally truly focus on just strengthening families instead of waiting till something happens and then putting all these resources and efforts into the response and treatments of, you know, after something has occurred.

Sandie [00:23:00] Everybody knows prevention is my favorite language. What do you want the larger anti-human trafficking community to know so that they can be part of the solution? How can they best be part of that?

First Lady Nez [00:23:18] You know, just working with Jaycee family programs and their suicide prevention projects, you know, in their studies, they’ve found that for indigenous peoples and the problem is for everyone, you know, children who have a sense of safety, who have a sense of identity, who have a sense of connection, and who have a sense of purpose they’re the ones that will be, you know, that we won’t see ever getting involved in a lot of things. And then I always add in for communities and tribes, if we can tell everybody how important it is to pursue higher education, to have permanent housing, always have housing for your household and to always have employment. I mean, just covering those three things really, I think eliminates being in the vulnerable group that gets themselves caught up in a lot of different things for their children and then, of course, for the adults, too.

Sandie [00:24:18] When you talk about secure housing, one of the places we visited, there was no running water. And actually, it’s Mathew’s grandmother. She welcomed us and she was feeding the horses and preparing for a celebration the next day. So she had just butchered one of the sheep. And we got to see firsthand the things that you’ve been talking about from in celebrating Navajo culture. And she wanted to make sure that we understood the meaning of some of the traditions like basket weaving and the importance of using everything from the sheep, the wool making rugs. It was inspiring to me, and I’m sure that that kind of celebration is an important piece of the resilience for families that you’re talking about. But I didn’t think it was okay that his 74-year-old grandma has to drive a truck to get the water to bring back to water to provide water for her horses and sheep. So I’m hoping that that’s a direction that partners in this can begin to address.

First Lady Nez [00:25:42] Yes. There’s a lot of our families don’t have running water under Navajo Nation. And just in terms of infrastructure, you could say that, too. I mean, not every it’s something that and as vast as the Navajo Nation is, those are still pieces that are getting worked on. And it’s going to be you know, it’s going to take a lot to get water to every single home. And then even in just the housing, you know, it’s a lot of our families don’t have permanent housing. And some of them are you know, as we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of our homes are multi-family households and so there’s probably two or three generations living in one household. And so all of those type of things, they do come into play. And then, of course, just having access to electricity, to even the Internet itself, you know, all of those things have to be they are needed. And right now I’d say probably the majority of households on the Navajo Nation don’t have access to them.

Sandie [00:26:53] So as a university professor and I talked to other university professors, a friend of mine said that if you live near a university, engage them in this conversation. And even if this hasn’t been part of their work in the past, when we invite them into this conversation, I think that they’ll be able to help with some of the recommendations that you’ve made in especially data gathering, because data driven decision making is going to be helpful in these three areas that you’ve outlined for us. Do you have any last remarks that you want to point us in the right direction.

First Lady Nez [00:27:41] I think one of the most important things to remember when it comes to working with tribal entities is just that whole notion of sovereignty, because as tribal nations, there’s always that. And for Navajo Nation in terms of research, and then we have our own human research and review board who, you know, you go through their entire system and then get approval from them. And the retention of data for the tribes is something I think every tribe really stands on. And so when we’re talking about research being done by universities, a lot of times we advocate for this everything to go through our own human research and review board. And then for the retention of those data by the tribes, by the tribes themselves. So that’s something to keep in mind. And then the other part is when we’re talking about an infrastructure like housing, like roads, like any type of electrical or water lines, any of that, we have to always end up talking about land status and what it means for Navajo, for our huge portion of our lands would be trust land. And, you know, my husband always equates that to trying to build something in a national park. And it’s like all those things that have to come into play. It’s not a quick fix, like as if you were on a state feel and somewhere else in any other part of the state. But just to keep things like that in mind and then just to always remember to consider those aspects to the cultural aspects to anything. That’s another portion that for the TCRP we have to that’s an added piece that will be in every one of the guidelines that we develop. And so those are probably the most important pieces to always think about when it comes to research and then developing recommendations or new guidelines or new protocols or processes. And so it’s a lot of education, both ways as to the external partners and then the same the other way around to learning from the external partners on some of the best practices and everything else that has come out of research done on non-tribal peoples.

Sandie [00:30:10] Wow. Okay. So I still feel like I’ve just dipped my toe in this and I have so much to learn. Any links that you want to share? We’re going to post them in the show notes. We’ll also put a link to the recordings from the Ensure Justice Navajo Nation conference that we just were able to partner with Matthew to do right there in Flagstaff. I just want to thank you so much for being such a transparent and generous hostess as we began to learn. And there’s so much we don’t know. When I first met you, I had no idea what it meant. And I’m so glad you just mentioned it, what it meant to say a sovereign nation. And so I want people that are listening. I’ve had people ask us what they can do to get involved. But I think listening and learning and doing your research first, you know how we always say study the issues, be a voice, make a difference, study first and then begin advocacy and action. Thank you so much, First Lady Nez, for joining us again here. And we hope to see you in person in March. You’re always welcome to come to Vanguard if Covid let’s us.

First Lady Nez [00:31:43] Yeah. I hope I get to go out there. March 2023, that’s almost a year away. I have to make it out there.

Sandie [00:31:51] All right. And you tell President Nez he’s welcome to come with you.

First Lady Nez [00:31:56] Okay, I’ll let him know.

Sandie [00:31:58] All right. Thank you, guys.

First Lady Nez [00:32:01] Thanks Dr. Morgan.

Dave [00:32:02] Thank you both so much for this conversation. We’re inviting you to take the first step as well. If you have a moment. If you go online, you can download a copy of Sandie’s Guide, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll teach you the five critical things Sandie’s identified in her work here at the Global Center for Women and Justice that you should know before you join the fight against trafficking. You can get access to that also all of the notes from today’s episode and links at endinghumantrafficking.org. We’re also inviting you if you’d like to become a patron through Patreon, you have access then to exclusive content and will join a community of advocates around the world who are fighting human trafficking in their own communities. How does it work? Just go over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. Click on the Patreon link at the very top and you’ll see all the information for getting bonus questions and segments and exclusive resources. That’s a simple and affordable way to support the show and the work at the Global Center for Women in Justice. You can just go over to endinghumantrafficking.org and if you’re already a patron, thank you so much for your support as always. We will be back in two weeks with more details. And also the as first lady Nez mentioned, the 2023 Ensure Justice conference details will be in the links as well as we begin preparations for that next year. Sandie, always a pleasure to be with you and I’ll see you again in two weeks.

Sandie [00:33:29] Thanks.

Dave [00:33:30] Thanks, everybody.

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