Melissa sipped on her Earl Grey tea. “I had my first child when I was fifteen,” she mused. “And boy, did that cause problems at home. My family on one side is strict Yugoslav Catholic”. She laughed ruefully, then went on.
“But I graduated high school a year later, and I have worked ever since. I suppose my one regret is not going to college. I have a high IQ and I am organised, so I have always done management level jobs.”
She paused. “But I wish I had gone to college.”
“Do you want to see my Halloween tree?” she asked quickly, changing the subject.
I had met Melissa only a few hours earlier when she arrived home from work. Her husband Mike was working on our camper van’s engine, and she clearly took pity on me, the lone women stranded in her yard with a group of blokes discussing the finer points of cooling fans and head gaskets.
“Come on inside,” she said, “don’t mind the dog, Rex is as gentle as can be,” as a sandy coloured pit bull terrier snuffled my hand. “It’s the cats you want to watch.”
Melissa and Mike live on the outskirts of Salida, a small Colorado town that nestles below the Rocky Mountains. As well as a large yard, their homestead boasts a paddock with two horses.
“This one is a cutting horse, cowboys use them for cattle work,” explained Melissa, stroking the chestnut stallion. “He can get a bit ornery,” she laughed, as he started pawing the ground. I moved back quickly.
They have five cats, four live on the porch while Eddie rules the roost indoors, and a stag wanders in and out the yard without fear.
“He’s real friendly,” laughed Mike, “and poor Rex is scared of him. In fact, Rex is bottom of the pile here. Even the skunk that comes by chases him.”
The couple are as American as motherhood and apple pie. “I grew up in a big house in Tennessee,” drawled Mike, “my family fought on the Confederate side in the war.
“And Melissa there, she can trace her family back to Clark of Lewis and Clark. Her family fought in the Revolutionary War, against your side.” He laughed his deep-throated Southern laugh.
Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark led the first American expedition across the western half of the USA to the Pacific Coast. Their two-year trek, which started in 1804 from St Louis, was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, primarily to plant the American flag on the territory before others, including the British, tried to claim it.
Jefferson was also keen that Lewis and Clark made contact with the various Indian tribes that lived in the north west, to find out how they lived and explore trading opportunities.
The expedition didn’t make it as far south as the deserts of Arizona and Utah, but if they had they would have encountered the Navajo – or Diné – tribe.
“There are three hundred and fifty thousand Diné today,” said Drew, our young guide who showed us round the wonders of Monument Valley. “We are the second biggest tribe in America. The Cherokee have 500,000 people.”
“And our land, the Navajo Nation, is bigger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined,” he finished with a flourish.
Much of the land is also hauntingly beautiful, with red and purple deserts as far as the eye can see, peppered with huge rocks, carved by millions of years of erosion into monumental structures, or mittens.
Diné society is organised around clans, through the women’s line, Angie explained as she braided my hair. We were sitting in her hogan, a traditional female Navajo home.
“Look, there are nine wooden pillars. These are the framework of the house. And they represent the nine stages of a baby’s life.”
There are two versions of the hogan. Male ones are kept for traditional ceremonies and celebrations. The female ones are the heart of family life, they are a place of warmth and protection.
But not for everyone. A headline on the front page of the Navajo-Hopi Observer hints at a more brutal way of life. ‘Why are Native American Women Missing?’, it asks poignantly.
The article reveals that Annit Lucceshi, a cartographer of Cheyenne descent, is building a database of missing or murdered indigenous women. Already, she has 2,700 names.
And a 2016 study shows that Native American women are murdered at a rate of ten times the national average, and that 80 per cent will experience violence at some point in their life.
North Dakota Senator, Heidi Heitkamp, has introduced a bill, Savanna’s Act, to try and tackle this epidemic of violence, but a year on and it is still sitting in committee.
“Violence against Native American women has not been prosecuted,” she said recently. “We have not really seen the urgency in closing cold cases. We haven’t seen the urgency when someone goes missing…”
Blackfeet Nation filmmaker Ivan MacDonald is more direct.
“It boils down to racism,” he argues. “You could sort of tie it into poverty or drug use or some of those factors… [but] the federal government doesn’t really give a crap at the end of the day.”
Meanwhile, two thousand miles east, in the heart of Washington DC, a woman tells the world her own terrible story of a violent sexual assault when she was 15.
At first glance, Christine Blasey Ford epitomises the American dream. A highly respected professional woman, with a PhD, a loving husband, two children and a home in sunny, expensive, California.
But her testimony to the Senate’s Judiciary Committee on Thursday revealed a fragile teenage girl who had never fully recovered from an attack that, at the time, almost ruined her life, and now, 36 years later, has certainly changed it forever.
Dr Ford has little in common with the thousands of Native American women who are beaten, raped or killed each year. Nothing but her gender.
And her citizenship. They are all American women struggling to survive in a society that elects a President who boasts about grabbing a woman’s pussy as casually as he orders a diet Coke.
But maybe, just maybe, a revolution is on its way. #TimesUp