Adding the articles from 1998 which show the problems on Navajo land from previous blog entry here:
The following article from 1999 could have been written yesterday since so little has actually changed on the Navajo Reserve:
Death and Detox in Indian Country
By Steve Devitt
AUGUST 16, 1999: Everything is different when you cross the line into Indian Country. Not "mystical," perhaps not even "genuine" as the Gallup Chamber of Commerce would have you believe, but different.
Native Americans have had a public relations problem since 1493, when Columbus returned to Spain and told artists about them. For the next 200 years, paintings and drawings of "Indians" who looked strangely European were accepted as reflections of reality.
Today many "mainstream" media reports and portrayals don’t do much better. Reporters rarely recognize the solid connection between the alcoholism rate on the Indian reservations and economic despair. The average per capita income on Montana’s Crow Reservation in 1989 was less than $7,000, and tribal officials at that time estimated the alcoholism rate at 90 percent among those tribal members over the age of 15. Since then a new tribal administration has increased tribal employment to the point that it now represents an annual payroll of $10 million.
As a result, the alcoholism rate, as well as the numbers of people killed in alcohol-related accidents, has decreased substantially. The statistics for the Crow in 1989, by the way, are very close to the statistics for the Navajo Nation in 1999. Of course, it’s a lot easier to say simply that Indians can’t handle liquor. Then nobody has to do anything about the economics that drive them to it.
The Native Americans you will read about in the accounts that follow are not from Gallup’s billboards. They are real people, with real families who experience real pain. The connection between alcohol and violence in Indian Country can be seen in two places: Gallup, N.M., and Window Rock, Ariz. The following two accounts provide a window into this serious dilemma and, possibly, a different, more viable direction for the future.
There are, of course, obvious strengths exercised by many Navajo and other Native Americans, such as the extended family, the allegiance to the land and the spiritual connections in their philosophy. In those strengths are found their greatest hope. For the rest of us, we have to stop looking at Gallup’s billboards and start recognizing the real problems in Indian Country.
PART I: GALLUP, N.M.
GALLUP, N.M. — Every weekend, 40,000 to 60,000 Native Americans converge on this high desert community. By Friday at 4 p.m., Route 666, the thoroughfare that leads to Gallup’s Rio West Mall and the new super Wal-Mart, looks like a California freeway at rush hour. Most of these people come to shop — indeed, they have made McKinley County the third-largest generator of sales tax in the state of New Mexico and 200 of the town’s 20,000 residents millionaires.
But some of them come to die.
In 1998, according the New Mexico Office of Medical Inspection, there were 11 homicides in McKinley County. So far this year there have been six, including two people shot to death by law enforcement officers. All but two of the dead were Navajo. And all of them died out of doors.
Not all of the carnage is officially labeled as homicide. The Burlington Santa Fe Railroad runs parallel to old Route 66 through town, and along its tracks are open areas where people, many of them Native Americans, gather and drink. In the past two years, 16 of them have been killed in train-pedestrian accidents. Some cops believe several of those people were murdered, placed on the tracks by disgruntled drinking companions.
Gallup is a community divided by geography: hills and arroyos separate well-appointed residential districts and provide meeting places for inebriates to share cheap wine. These people do not always get along. Last year there were roughly 300 robberies in Gallup, and more than 70 percent of them did not involve the use of weapons. They were "strong arm" robberies: "Give me your money, or I will beat you to death."
Last fall, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) told the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs that the homicide rate in Indian Country (that portion of the United States controlled by Indian tribes) had risen 87 percent while the murder rate for the rest of the United States had decreased by 22 percent. And in February, the Department of Justice issued an eye-opening report gleaned from five years of statistics on violence in Indian communities, both on and off reservations. More than 500 Native Americans are murdered every year, and they comprise the ethnic group most likely to be murdered by a member of a different ethnic group.
That’s not the case in Gallup, or anywhere in Navajo country. Police officers and prosecutors on both sides of the reservation line say the deaths are all related to alcohol, and victims and perpetrators alike are Navajo. But for Gallup, a community that has grandfathered in about twice the number of bars allowed in other towns of similar size in New Mexico, the liquor business is too lucrative to give up. On the reservation, taxes on legalized liquor sales could establish much-needed treatment centers and provide additional law enforcement services, but the idea is unacceptable to traditional Navajos.
Small wonder. The Navajo, whether they drink or not, know that booze has killed more Indians than John Wayne. Alcohol-created arguments often end in violence employing "weapons of convenience," most commonly rocks or cement blocks. "The weapons are often Neolithic," said McKinley County District Attorney Forrest Buffington, "weapons of opportunity. Cement blocks are used at least as much as knives."
In one case last year, a man was arrested for crushing a woman’s head with a block of cement and killing her. His story was the woman was part of a group of people who beat and robbed him, and the story worked. He was not convicted of the killing. Homicide is often a hard crime to prosecute in McKinley County. Many times there are no witnesses. Other times, the witnesses are too intoxicated to provide reliable testimony, or even remember what happened.
In the fall of 1997, an Indian man was stabbed to death outside the motel room in Gallup that he was sharing with his wife. The night of his death, the woman told police her husband only went outside to tell two young Navajo men to be quiet. Subsequently, it was proven that he went out with a steel pipe in his hands, and that he had been arrested several times for assault. A month after the incident, his wife told social workers, "He’s not a bad guy when he’s not drinking."
He died about 11 p.m. and reportedly had been drinking since 10 a.m. His wife, who had been drinking with him, told police one story the night of her husband’s death, another a month later, and contradicted herself constantly on the stand during the trial. His assailants were acquitted.
Jurisdiction is also troublesome. Major crimes on Indian land are handled by the federal government rather than local authorities. "You go four miles from here," Buffington said, gesturing around his office in downtown Gallup, "and you will be crossing in and out of Indian Country. Even pursuit is dangerous."
Jurisdiction can slow justice. Two years ago, a Navajo man walked into the Gallup police department and confessed to shooting his wife. While he was making his confession, his wife bled to death in his pick-up outside. The case took months to get to court because the police could not determine where he had shot his wife — on or off the reservation.
Despite the solid numbers involving Navajo violence, the population affected is a small fraction of the local Navajo population. In past years, Gallup police officers referred to the "100" — known drunks who were picked up, sometimes several times a week, and jailed for public intoxication and other charges.
Five years ago, the county, city and tribe established a detox center and public safety patrols. If somebody passes out on the streets of Gallup, he or she is picked up within 15 minutes and taken to the center where they are detoxed and given the option of long-term treatment. While the Gallup Chamber of Commerce has touted the program as solving the city’s alcohol problem, Buffington isn’t sure how much of it is really effective and how much is cosmetic. He said he had never heard of the infamous "100," but he did know that the role of victim and perpetrator was easily reversed.
"We constantly arrest people who have been victims in four or five assault cases," he said, "and those same people have generally been suspects in four or five cases."
During the past two years, Buffington has been criticized for a number of plea bargains in which charges stemming from cases involving violent deaths have been reduced to involuntary manslaughter. Most of the time, he said, it would have been impossible to successfully prosecute them as homicide cases.
It’s very difficult to get a verdict that is "beyond a reasonable doubt" when there are no witnesses or the witnesses were so inebriated at the time that they contradict their own testimony on the stand. But he does try to bring the cases to court.
"The most cynical thing a person could do," he said, "is not to prosecute these people at all, because their lifestyle is a death sentence."
(Pt. 2 continues in this blog)