Mother Jones: Navajo Nation debates death penalty

"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.

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."

Get the Story:
Marilyn Berlin Snell: Revenge versus harmony (Mother Jones January/February 2007 Issue)

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