We Are the Rez

Kelly Koepke
12/3/11

In Indigenous Albuquerque (Texas Tech University Press, 2011), Myla Vicenti Carpio explores the complexities of urban life for Native peoples in New Mexico’s largest city. Vicenti Carpio, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, draws from her experience living in Denver and Albuquerque and as a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Laguna and Isleta Pueblos, to examine issues of identity, health care, politics and culture for the more than 30,000 American Indians who call Albuquerque home.

The book depicts a city set apart from other urban areas in that the majority of American Indians who live there retain close ties to their reservations, primarily because of their proximity.

“Living in Albuquerque is living in the middle of Indian country,” she writes. “Few places exist in Albuquerque where you do not see Indigenous People.… Albuquerque is an enigma when it comes to urban Indigenous People. The number of reservations around the city creates diverse relationships and interactions.”

Vicenti Carpio points to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and Gathering of Nations Pow Wow as both economic engine and cultural connection between reservation and urban indigenous, as well as a link to the non-Native population. Despite Native peoples’ long history of influence on and significant presence in Albuquerque, the city and its institutions have been slow to recognize this important part of the community. Her example of the removal and relocation of sacred rock carvings and the expansion into sacred Native lands on Albuquerque’s west side—which rallied Natives and non-Natives alike—starkly highlights this ongoing tension.

The author exhorts readers to rethink the question of identity and the perceived dichotomy between urban and non-­urban indigenous lifestyles: “Bridging that division, we can see that important cultural, social and political relationships are strengthened when reservation and urban communities … communicate.”

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Indigenous Albuquerque’s Myla Vicenti Carpio sat down with Indian Country Today Media Network to talk about her book, what it means to be an urban Indian, and what she wants readers to derive from the discussion of city versus reservation. As she notes, Indigenous Peoples have always been part of Albuquerque’s makeup; U.S. policies have never influenced how or whether Native peoples lived there.

How did the book come about?

What I was reading about urban Indian life in general, on relocation and termination as a policy, was not part of how I saw Albuquerque life. Albuquerque is fascinating because it’s a central place in indigenous lands. Nothing had been written about Albuquerque at all.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who say the book reminds them of how it was when they would go through Albuquerque. But it’s more than just “through” there. Natives have always permanently lived in Albuquerque.

I saw the issue of urban Native peoples differently too. Albuquerque has a huge Native population and little acknowledgment of it. I want readers to reframe the issues and remind people of them. It’s not just an issue of relocation.

Does this book contribute to the larger discussion of relocation?

Yes, because I want this to be another perspective. The reality is that more people moved to cities outside of the relocation program than with it—for jobs or for family. Only within the past 15 to 20 years have we begun really discussing urbanization. Now we’re pushing the boundaries between urban and rez life.

What can be extrapolated from the urban indigenous experience in Albuquerque to the urban indigenous experience in general?

That this is all indigenous land—there is no separation between urban and rez. Instead it’s about relationships. There are influences back and forth. When people say you’re urban, what they mean is, you’re not Indian. That’s not true. Just because you go away to school or go to work in a city doesn’t mean you aren’t Indian. Instead, we need to be open to dialogue to work together to help each other. One of the examples in the book is the Laguna Colony in Albuquerque, which was recognized by the Laguna Pueblo and is a part of it, representing the permanent urban residency of those members of the Laguna Pueblo.

Is that why you also feature the City of Albuquerque’s recent relocation of sacred petroglyphs and the paving of a major road through the site?

Yes. That illustrates ongoing issues throughout the United States of religion and politics. The U.S. says it is built on freedom of religion, but then the government destroys the church of another religion. These arguments over religion, sacred sites and repatriation are everywhere. They are divisive and demonstrate the continued idea of Western expansion—they’re not just in the past, and they’re not being acknowledged.

What’s next?

I’m working on two projects with another Arizona State professor: one on the intersection of American Indians and the Japanese Americans who were in internment camps, and the other an edited volume on the Japanese American internment and Indians in Arizona.

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