Kathleen Bowman still remembers the event that kickstarted her advocacy work against the death penalty: a film screening of Dead Man Walking in St. Michaels, AZ.
The movie, which explores the relationship between a nun and a death row inmate, reached Bowman on an emotional and spiritual level, reminding her of her own deep roots with Catholic nuns and social justice issues.
Born into the Towering House Clan and Folded Arms Clan of the Navajo people, Bowman attended St. Michaels Indian School in St. Michaels, AZ, just as her father and grandfather before her. It was her grandfather – first enrolled in 1906 – who first received Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation, and later sent his own children to school there.
Bowman’s children and grandchildren have also attended St. Michaels and St. Catherine – the latter a now-closed school in Santa Fe.
“I’m just really grateful that I had the opportunity to be raised in a Catholic school by nuns, basically, because I was a boarder [starting] in fifth grade. The nuns that taught me treated me very well,” Bowman said. She also has fond memories of clubs and extracurricular activities.
“My sister and I won the Apache county spelling bee four years in a row. So then we went to spell in Phoenix in 8th grade and I came in third in the state. I spelled against 11 boys,” she recalls with a laugh.
Bowman was valedictorian of her class and eventually became a lawyer, passing the bar for Arizona, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation.
Work to Repeal the Death Penalty
But it was after that viewing of Dead Man Walking, hosted by her friend Sr. Josephine Goebel, that advocacy against the death penalty became a special cause for her. She first joined an activist group in Gallup, then a statewide community working to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico.
Following several particularly heinous murders, in 2003 the Navajo Nation held hearings to consider opting in to the death penalty. The tribe had recently been rocked by the case of 63-year-old Alyce Slim and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Tiffany Lee, who in 2001 were carjacked and murdered by Lezmond Mitchell and Johnny Orsinger. All four were Navajo.
Bowman was one of the leading voices in testifying during the hearings, arguing that opting in to the death penalty would be a violation of traditional Navajo beliefs. After hearing many testimonies, including those from families of victims who opposed the death penalty, and Juan Roberto Melendez-Colon, an innocent man who spent 17 years on death row before being released, the tribe decided not to opt in to the death penalty. As of today, only one tribe in the United States, the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, has opted in.
“Believe me, it was an educational experience, because not many people among my people on the reservation were familiar with the issues that affect people who are subject to the death penalty, and it was an eye opener for them,” Bowman said. “And the result was, no legislation was ever passed for [the] Navajo Nation to opt in.”
And although she rejects the idea of “an eye for an eye”, Bowman also understands the concerns of those who support the death penalty – especially victims’ families.
“I myself have lost three family members to murder. But because of my traditional upbringing and my Catholic upbringing from St. Michaels, I believe in the sanctity of life, and that’s what we fought for.”
The murders of her cousin and nephew remain unsolved. Bowman also lost her grandfather, the man who was instrumental in instilling the Catholic faith in her family, who was murdered before she was born.
“I don’t have the right to judge someone, because if we put someone to death it would be a government-sanctioned murder,” she said. “They should have the right to reflect on what they’ve done, and to seek forgiveness from the Creator. They should have a chance to redeem themselves.”
Ultimately, through a loophole which allows carjacking to be prosecuted as a federal crime, the US Justice Department was able to sentence Mitchell to death; Orsinger, a minor at the time of the crime, received a life sentence. Mitchell was executed on August 26, 2020.
The precedent worries many tribal activists, including Bowman, who are concerned with the inability of many tribes to carry out justice in their own borders due to federal laws. For instance, the Navajo Nation is unable to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes within tribal lands. And despite growing concern and activism, the United States government does not keep accurate statistical data regarding missing or murdered Indigenous women.
Public Defender Career
For many years, Bowman has served as the head of the Office of Public Defender for the Navajo Nation, which includes 12 courts throughout tribal lands, along with the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. She started her legal career in the tribe’s Department of Justice but switched offices as an act of conscience.
“I began to see how individual rights were just being violated right and left, and I could see it being done here,” she recalls. “[Many accused are] indigent, they don’t have money, they can’t hire private attorneys, and I decided ‘I’m going to make this my life’s work.’”
It seems to have stuck – after 28 years, Bowman is still working with the Defender’s Office. Like many convicts on death row, Bowman believes there are some clients in the Navajo Court system who are innocent.
“People get put in jail, and maybe if they have a job, they can’t call in to tell their supervisor, and even if they did, they might get in trouble. So people were losing benefits, they were losing jobs, they were losing homes, and sometimes they didn’t even do what they were accused of…And over the years, I’m just more convinced that somebody has to fight for poor people who can’t afford counsel.”
Along with rehabilitation for many of her clients, Bowman believes that investment in jobs, infrastructure, housing, and rehabilitation centers are the most pressing issues that determine the future of the Navajo people.
“Some of my people have been living here with no jobs – they have to leave the reservation and go to places like Phoenix or Los Angeles to find jobs, to put food on the table for their families.”
Catholicism and Tradition
In her spare time, Bowman volunteers in multiple ministries at her parish, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Ft. Defiance, AZ. One of those ministries is the Kateri Circle, named after St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a saint dear to her heart.
“She was still such a young woman when she died, but she gave up everything. She gave up a secular life to love Jesus and devote her life to following Catholicism, and praying and helping the sick and poor people.”
She also has a special devotion to St. Katharine Drexel, with whom she shares a name, and who founded St. Michaels, the school so instrumental in forming Bowman’s spirituality. She remembers, as a young girl, asking one of the priests if he believed there was a conflict between Catholicism and Navajo traditions and spirituality.
“And he said no. And after that I was comfortable in my own skin,” she recalls. “We should not be afraid of [traditional ways]. Like, you have a Blessingway ceremony. That’s totally spiritual. Or the Kinaaldá for the young ladies that are entering [puberty]. There’s no conflict. These are good things.”
As she approaches her 75th birthday, she hopes to continue working for social justice, professionally and personally, as long as she can.
“Those are some things that I take great pride in, which is: practicing and living my religion. I know that St. Katharine believed in knowing, loving, and serving God, and that is exactly how she lived her life. And I hope to continue with those values in the future.”