Navajo Nation Fosters Change

Carol Berry
5/25/11

Native residents of one border town may find race relations improving after years of alleged discrimination, harassment and disbelief from non-Native storekeepers, teens, and city officials.

The city of Cortez, Colorado, a short drive from Navajo Nation lands in the Four Corners area, agreed May 24 to a government-to-government initiative with the Navajo Nation after a series of public hearings on race relation problems and a subsequent report by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC).

Tony Skrelunas, former director of the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development, said 70 cents of every Navajo dollar earned is spent in border towns whose retail economies largely stem from Navajo shoppers, yet border town businesses primarily employ non-Natives. His remarks were part of a testimony at NNHRC hearings.

Nonprofit organizations use Navajo statistical and demographic data when submitting grant applications but do not provide services to Navajo communities and citizens when funded, he said.

Clyde Benally, Navajo, said a realtor in Cortez showed him “three houses that were run down and similar to run-down houses many Navajos live in on the reservation” even though he was educated and had a well-paid job, and he “realized the assumptions (were) made about him only because he was Navajo,” he said in NNHRC testimony.

At a meeting of the Cortez City Council, when Benally and others sought to have speed-limit signs erected in their neighborhood, a councilman who did not realize his microphone was on said, “Go back to the reservation,” Benally contended.

Arthur Neskahi, Navajo, director and founder of the Montelorse Human Relations Coalition, Cortez, said he recalled local beatings of Natives and described a Navajo man who was stripped and left in the courtyard of a local high school.

Michael Mullins, of Native descent and a former BIA officer, said several teenagers assaulted indigent Indian men in a Cortez city park, noting “As long as we Natives don’t say anything and we just put our head down and walk out the door they’re going to continue to do that.”

Although Mullins called for a meeting with city officials concerning the assaults, only the police chief responded and he denied “any of the violence as racist,” according to NNHRC testimony.

Other testimony touched on such topics as racist curricula in the schools, unfavorable practices by some area funeral homes that continue because of a cultural belief that death is not to be spoken about, and law enforcement practices when domestic violence and alcohol abuse are involved.

Three communities in New Mexico with similar NNHRC-inspired race relations initiatives are Grants, Gallup and Farmington, all adjoining Navajo Nation tribal lands.

Cortez police chief Roy Lane initiated a conversation about the Cortez initiative, scheduled to be introduced at Cortez City Council by the city’s mayor, Dan Porter, by Navajo Nation Speaker Johnny Naize and NNHRC chairperson Duane H. Yazzie.

The report that stemmed from the NNHRC hearings is titled, “Assessing Race Relations between Navajos and Non-Navajos: A Review of Border Town Race Relations” at www.nnhrc.navajo-nsn.gov.

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