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Navajo Father-Son Team Leads the People Away From Abuse, Toward Peace

Ernest Tsosie Jr. and John L. Tsosie founded Walking the Healing Path to address domestic violence and child abuse on the Navajo Nation.

Walking the Healing Path, Inc. (WTHP) was founded over 11 years ago. The organization, started by John L. Tsosie and his father, Ernest Tsosie, Jr., is dedicated to seeing "individuals & communities unite as one and commit not only to seek but to create solutions to end domestic violence and child abuse/neglect in the many homes and families that make up not only the Navajo Nation but the entire US as a whole." It is no secret that the Native community suffers high rates of substance abuse, domestic violence and many other social ills. This blight touches every Tribe, in every community across Indian country. Formal programs, whether they be at the federal, state or Tribal government level, are woefully under-funded. And, in many cases, ineffectual. But, WTHP offers an alternative solution to this growing problem.

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John describes his program as a way "to get the attention of kids using the talents of entertainers. Mixing music and laughter with serious messages" to get their points across. Both men are very open and honest about why they choose to do this work. "I walked both sides of the line," says John, "Meaning, I abused my family, and I've also been a victim. I felt I had to give back, and this is my means. I wanted to share my story in hopes that we inspire others to live in a positive manner. We felt as a father and son team, we could, hopefully, create a positive example for others. " He goes on to share a little of his personal journey. "Growing up, I witnessed the abusive behavior of my dad. Domestic violence is a learned behavior." He recounts a story from early childhood where his dad left home after an argument with his mom. As he consoled her, he promised "not to drink; not to do drugs; and to never use angry force against a woman." He kept his word until his college years. Then, peer pressures caused him to break the first two. When he started his own family, "I would break that last promise, which just devastated me. When I hurt my [ex-fianc é]. I just flashed back to that little boy, making those promises." That was the turning point. He realized he needed help, and he realized that he had to change his life. He credits his mother's wisdom for helping him to appreciate the difference between right and wrong. He created Project Peace Train, a program within WTHP, because he wanted to reach the youth at an early age, and to raise awareness about domestic violence and teen dating violence. Tsosie sought counseling, and took steps to prevent future incidents.

A reflective vest worn on WTHP walks bears earned pieces of flair and a no-nonsense message.

Ernest, Jr.'s story is eerily similar to that of John. "One Sunday morning, I came home and my whole family was gone. They had gone away because they knew that I would come home in a bad way. Right then, I realized what I was doing to my family. I fell on my knees, and I cried and I prayed, and I asked the Lord to help me get rid of this alcohol abuse. I finally got up, after 2 hours, and I went to go find my family. My wife had been through this so many times with me. I promised her that this time it was for real. It took a year for her to see I finally did quit drinking. That prayer that I gave that morning is still with me." He has been sober for over 30 years. "These are some of the stories that I share when people come to hear us." They are often joined by John's other siblings, Ernest III (of the comedy team James & Ernie) and LeAnne, as well as some other well-known entertainers.

The Tsosies use their walks and public speaking to raise awareness at the grassroots level. They did their first walk, from Window Rock to Phoenix, in 2004. They regularly do presentations in schools in order to start the education process, early. "During our walks, we've heard from victims as well as batterers," says John. "Many of them grew up thinking that abusive relationships were normal. They grew up thinking that that was okay. That's where we come in to make sure that everybody recognizes this issue. And, basically tell our story, to let them know you can change. So that the young people know that this behavior is wrong."

The Tsosies have a different approach to addressing these issues. They relate to their audiences through common experiences. "I try to be as understanding as possible," says John. "I try to get them to realize that change needs to happen before it's too late. Unfortunately for a lot of us, hitting rock-bottom is what it takes. I advise them to change their life-style; getting away from negative influences. I had to cut a lot friends out of my life in order to live healthy. You have to have faith in yourself. A lot of these guys feel guilty about what they've done. I stress to forgive yourself. To acknowledge and learn from your past, and now it's time to positively move forward. For victims, I tell them to go to your local domestic violence programs, or to shelters. You've got to keep strong, but you've got to leave that relationship in a safe way. You have to leave that situation. I share my story with kids, hoping they learn from my experience."

Judge Reinhold is among the entertainers who support Walking the Healing Path.

Funding these programs is always a challenge, but they are getting buy-in. Recently, John announced that actors Annabeth Gish (Sons of Anarchy), Judge Reinhold (Beverly Hills Cop), and Bruce Campbell (Burn Notice) are lending their support to the effort. But, the Tsosies do all of their programs as volunteers. So, donations are always welcome. They are working towards their 501(c)(3) status. They are going to be doing another walk, from Window Rock to the Hopi Nation, in 2015.

John says that actions such as domestic violence and child abuse "are taking lives. But all of us can work as a community to end this issue by reporting it and getting involved in local events. Our leadership needs to invest in these programs." Ernest, Jr. adds "I always ask the abusers to look at their children's eyes. We're the ones that are supposed to be protecting them. We are in the position to offer security to our children. I know it's hard. But, if it comes from your heart, you can tell. I tell them to try and help yourself, that way you can help others."
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