Dec. 12, 2017
This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. As we enter the holiday season, the Millennial Fellows have chosen to explore the ideas of community and home.
When people ask me where I’m from, I’ve taken to claiming the entire Four Corners Region of New Mexico as home. You see, I was born in Shiprock, a small town on the Navajo Nation, but was raised in the adjacent off-reservation towns of Kirtland and Farmington. When I visit for the holidays, I like to drive down the 30-mile stretch of Highway 64 that joins all three communities, noting how much richer and whiter things get as I leave the reservation. The abandoned housing projects of Shiprock (96% Native American) give way to double wide trailer homes in Kirtland (55% Native American), which eventually gives way to clusters of McMansions in Farmington (66% white).
I make this drive because I think it’s important to reacquaint myself not just with the things about home that make me happy (family, friends, and roasted green chile), but also the uncomfortable reasons I left home in the first place. These reasons include the Four Corner’s history of racialized violence, enduring economic inequality, and legacy of Indigenous activism motivated an exit and provided a foundation for my future studies
Here is some history. In April 1974, the bodies of three Navajo men — John Earl Harvey, Benjamin Benally, and David Ignacio — were found bludgeoned and burned in Farmington. The men had been slain by three white high school students who routinely harassed and attacked homeless Natives. This pattern of violence, known as “Indian rolling,” was and continues to be pervasive in Southwestern majority-white towns that border reservations.
The deaths of Harvey, Benally, and Ignacio prompted a swift response from Navajos, who marched through the town for seven consecutive Sundays, waged a boycott on white-owned businesses, and demanded greater representation in local government.Protesters formed the Coalition for Navajo Liberation and among their demands were a civil rights investigation, meetings with Farmington’s elected leaders to air grievances, increase the recruitment of Navajos for city employment, and the creation of a Native community center.
The following year, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission released a report on local relations between whites and Navajos, which found Native Americans were deliberately excluded from political representation, hiring in both private and public sectors, and fair lending practices. Though the report characterized the brutal deaths as an a disruption to an otherwise tranquil way of life in Farmington, interviews with Farmington’s white residents revealed long standing racist attitudes toward Natives, including a belief that all Navajos were alcoholics who enjoyed free health care, tax exemptions, and cash welfare.
These attitudes have persisted in the intervening decades, and unfortunately there is scant evidence that the political and socioeconomic inequities have been addressed. Despite a significant Native population, a Navajo person has never held office in Farmington’s City Council. A follow-up civil rights investigation of the town’s race relations conducted in 2005 found Natives are still relegated to low-income occupations and suffer worse health outcomes than whites. During the past three winters, 26 homeless Natives have died from exposure in border towns, a sign of persistent Native poverty and a lack of public services dedicated to addressing homelessness. As late as 2008, my mother and I have been harassed in grocery store checkout lines by white women who have accused of us being “Indian freeloaders” on welfare. And, despite the prevailing attitude that racism takes on less visceral forms today as it did in the past, three Farmington residents kidnapped a Navajo man in 2010, branded him with a swastika, and used markers to write “KKK” and “White Power” on his body.
Though disparities and violence in my community persist, the work of Indigenous activists in the 1970s has laid the groundwork for addressing them. For example, the Navajo Human Rights Commission now exists and collects data on hate crimes and discriminatory practices against Navajo citizens. The Red Nation organizes responses to extrajudicial violence, organizes a clothing drive each winter to prevent exposure deaths, and pressures border town governments to allocate more resources to Native American public health issues. As I transition into adulthood, I contemplate how I can most effectively add to these efforts and grow Native political voice at the local level.
When people ask me what home is like, I’ve taken to claiming these histories of violence and resistance as my own. I do this because during the holidays, we are often encouraged to give back to our communities, but rarely are we encouraged to examine what else is needed throughout the year. I ask that you, too break away from the celebrations and examine the histories of your community and how you might align yourself on the just side of the future.