Border Town, USA: An Ugly Reality Many Natives Call Home
Maxine Hanley was 16 when she had her first drink. At 50, homeless and living on the streets of Gallup, she drank two to three pints of hard liquor a day and slept wherever she could.
Now sober and living in Gallup’s C.A.R.E. 66 transitional housing, Maxine described her former life as one consumed with fear and relentless heartache. She spoke in a soft, stern voice as she recounted a half-century cycle of violence that began where she grew up in Tohatchi, New Mexico. in the Navajo Nation and continued to haunt her on border town streets.
“I grew up as an adult,” she said. The oldest of three, she took care of her younger siblings while her parents and relatives drank around her—often getting between family members in violent brawls and fights.
Family violence, for Maxine, was routine, and the abuse was emotional, physical, and sexual.
“I was scared,” she said. “I wasn’t the only one.”
As a teenager, she often ran away. At 18, she left home and the reservation for good.
But Maxine carried the trauma of her youth with her as she moved from city to city looking for work and an escape. She found other Native people like her, but the painful memories of her past haunted her in what she saw as a private affliction.
“It was always there,” she spoke quietly.
Life was constant transition. Moving from place to place or moving from street to street to avoid harassment from police and strangers, the places Maxine traveled were no places; violence and pain awaited her in the next city or just around corner.
But she never felt homeless. “I’d call every place I went my home,” Maxine laughed. “We’d stay wherever we had to stay.”
Always befriending other Native people like her, she understood her affliction was shared among many and the violence she knew they also knew.
“I’m not the only one who’s like this,” she said. But she always asked herself, “How come I ended up like this?”
In recovery from three decades of hard living, Maxine reflected on her circumstances. It wasn’t just her childhood and her parents. It wasn’t just the alcohol. It was many things. It was half-a-century of violence for Maxine, most of it spent on the streets of border towns.
“All of us are different,” she stated, as she spoke about the Native people she met on the street—entire families, youth, the jobless, veterans, the mentally ill, addicts, and felons. While the stories were different, the violence was always there.
The violence of border town life, however, is a complicated problem as Native America’s population shifts from a less and less reservation-base to an increasing urban-base.
Maxine’s story is one of many. Statistics, however, of contemporary American Indian life may shed light on the problems of border town violence, poverty, and homelessness.
The 2010 U.S. Census reports that 78 percent of American Indians live off-reservation. Of approximately 5.2 million that self-identify as American Indian, roughly 4 million live off reservation and federal trust land.
With that comes new challenges to age-old problems. Statistics show the social ills many equate with reservation life are compounded in border towns, both rural and urban.
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