In Navajo country, racism rides again

Hate crimes against Navajos are on the rise -- reopening barely healed wounds from the brutal "Injun rolling" of the '70s, tribal leaders say.

Topics: Paul Shirley,

In Navajo country, racism rides again

No one wanted another 1974. Not the Navajo, and definitely not the city of Farmington, which is still living down the Navajo murders of that spring, not to mention their aftermath.

But here it is, 32 years later, and the old wounds are wide open. Once again, violent, racially charged incidents between whites and Navajos in Farmington, on the eastern edge of the sprawling Navajo reservation, have outraged Indian country. Once again, a city trying to shake its nickname as “the Selma, Ala., of the Southwest” is on the defensive. And, once again, what’s happening here in northern New Mexico is prompting talk of border-town racism on reservations all over the country.

This all started with a beating in Farmington in June. A 47-year-old Navajo man who was offered a ride by three white teenagers in Farmington was driven to the outskirts of town, beaten with a stick and punched and kicked. He said they used racial slurs as they pummeled him.

The beating reminded everyone of the 1970s, the heyday of “Injun rollin’,” where white youths in the border towns beat up Navajos (usually sleeping alcoholics they could easily “roll” around) as a rite of passage. In April 1974, when three white Farmington youths tortured, mutilated and bludgeoned three Navajo men, tossing their burned and broken bodies into a canyon, the Navajo Nation organized weeks of peaceful protests in Farmington. When marchers were denied a permit the day after the murderers were sentenced to reform school, clashes with police led to dozens of arrests.

The June beating could hardly compare to the torture murders of years ago. But six days after the beating, a 21-year-old Navajo man was killed by a police officer responding to a call about a domestic dispute at a Wal-Mart parking lot. When Farmington police declared the shooting a justifiable homicide and the FBI declined to investigate — the agency is now reconsidering its decision — Navajo leaders announced they would set aside $300,000 for the man’s family to file a wrongful death suit against Farmington, and for an investigation of border-town racism.

To visit the Navajo Nation is to know that all the hard feelings are back. These days, as the Navajo plan their first public appeals for tolerance in border towns since 1974 — the first gesture, a peace walk commemorating all victims of racism, is Sept. 2 — everyone on the rez will tell you a story or two or three. They’ll volunteer how someone they know — or they themselves — were recently taunted by white youths, ignored or stared down at a white establishment, or stopped by white police officers for simply being in Farmington.



“I used to say things had gotten much better,” said Duane “Chili” Yazzie, a veteran of the 1974 marches, and a former member of the American Indian Movement.

Yazzie, who is now president of the Navajo Nation’s Shiprock Chapter — the equivalent of a mayor — was addressing a group of Navajo teenagers in the Shiprock Chapter House the other day about how to respond to racism. He showed a short documentary on Farmington’s legacy of Navajo hate crimes, “Totah” (the Navajo word for the town), made by a British journalist four years ago. In the film, Yazzie did not offer much hope that issues between the border town and the Navajo Nation would ever be resolved.

Yet he tried to sound a positive note. “All we can do,” he told the solemn-faced teenagers, “is try.”

Since the latest incidents, white leaders in Farmington, a plain little city (population 40,000) that is 63 percent white, 17 percent Native American and 17 percent Hispanic, have repeatedly denied that Navajos are singled out. They’ve also pointed out that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, in a 2005 report examining Farmington 30 years after the torture murders, noted marked improvements in attitudes toward the Navajo.

But that report also concluded that major challenges remain. This summer’s incidents are the latest in a long string of border-town attacks on Navajos since the infamous murders. To name a few, in 2001, a 16-year-old Navajo youth was murdered in Colorado by a Farmington man in what police called either a gay hate crime or an Indian hate crime, or both. In 2000, a 36-year-old Navajo woman, Betty Lee, was bludgeoned to death by two Farmington men who were also charged with killing a Navajo man. One of the suspects, Robert Fry (now on death row for Lee’s murder), remains a suspect in at least three other brutal Navajo murders and has been implicated in the disappearance of a tribal man.

Navajos keep disappearing, tribal members say. The tribe does not have the numbers, but organizers of the peace walk are hoping relatives of the missing will come out so that they could be counted. Many people here believe that the missing must be victims of Indian rolling whose bodies are somewhere in the vast canyons of the desert, yet — or never — to be found.

With the spotlight back on hate crimes, tribal members from all over Indian country have been calling the Navajo, offering to join a boycott of border towns or join marches. Discrimination against Native Americans in towns bordering the large reservations in the country is a longstanding concern among the largest tribes in the country, including the Navajo and the Lakota, in Pine Ridge, S.D.

But Yazzie, who is organizing the response in Navajo Nation, said that for now, he does not want splashy protests or boycotts. And for now, others are deferring to Yazzie, respectful of his experience as a survivor of racist violence.

In 1978, Yazzie was shot by a white hitchhiker whom he had picked up on a rainy night off the rez. Police called it a hate crime.

Despite that, the shooting cost the man less than five years in prison. It cost Yazzie his right arm.

Evelyn Nieves, former staff writer and columnist for the New York Times, is working on a book.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>