Welcome to Gallup, NM, Where ‘They Just Want Another Person Dead’
Liquor stores, bars, payday loan centers, pawnshops, and trading posts selling kitschy “Indian” souvenirs dot the landscape of Gallup, New Mexico. Once known as “Indian Capital of the World,” the city’s economy thrives on Navajo generated-business and non-Native tourism.
Located along the Historic Route 66 in McKinley County, the poorest county in New Mexico, Gallup now boasts the titles “America’s Most Patriotic Small Town” and “Adventure Capital of New Mexico.”
In the late 1980s, the city also earned the title “Drunk Town, USA” by 20/20, in an investigation of its Native-dependent alcohol economy. The name stuck despite more than two decades of city officials’ attempts to refashion the city’s image.
“We are a border town,” Mayor Jackie McKinney admitted. With little economic opportunity in the Navajo Nation, “they come into our community and alcoholism is created.”
More than three-quarters of the McKinney County population are American Indian, mainly Navajo. Gallup, the county seat, is a city of 22,000. Almost half are Native, mostly Navajo—and almost a third of that population lives in poverty.
Visitors to the city have also complained about the discernibly Native population living on the streets, often panhandling for change.
In April, a coalition of city officials, church, business, and community groups rolled out the 90-day “Change In My Heart, Not In My Pocket” campaign to encourage people to “have compassion to say ‘No’ to panhandlers.” Giving money, the group’s press release states, enables substance abuse and harms the tourist economy. The group plans to step-up policing, educate businesses on trespassing and loitering laws, and increase donations to substance abuse treatment and homeless services.
That message sparked controversy. Many saw “panhandlers” as a misnomer for “Natives” and “Navajos” that didn’t address the city’s liquor economy, high rates of poverty, and economic dependence on Native business.
Stella Martin, long-time Navajo resident, saw the campaign as directly targeting Navajo people. When it was announced, she felt it unfairly targeted Native people. “I was really upset because it was our relatives,” she said.
At the first public meeting, Jeremy Yazzie, a Navajo student at UNM-Gallup, described the make-up of the campaign’s proponents: “It was an all white male group who wanted to push the [Native] panhandlers away from Gallup and make it more tourist-friendly and put a big red bow on Gallup.”
And it didn’t make Martin feel any safer. “Some of my friends died out there,” she said.
Her friend, Oliver Yazzie, was murdered by 17-year-old African-American Jonah Jeter at a Pilot truck stop east of Gallup in 2010. After paying for sex, Jeter attacked Yazzie with a knife, stabbing him upwards of 28 times and leaving his mutilated body underneath a truck.
Yazzie was targeted for murder not just because of he was Navajo, but because he was also transgender, often preferring to dress and act as a woman. After sex, Jeter discovered this and stabbed Yazzie to death.
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