Nick Estes
From left to right: Stella Martin, Raymond Martin, and Jeremy Yazzie call Gallup, N.M. home. But they feel their daily struggles go unheard by both their own people in the Navajo Nation and city officials.

Welcome to Gallup, NM, Where ‘They Just Want Another Person Dead’

Nick Estes

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.

RELATED: Border Town, USA: An Ugly Reality Many Natives Call Home

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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bluecloud62's picture
Submitted by bluecloud62 on
I'm floored by this article, it’s so sad that again, there is another article that is completely one sided. I am part of the group "change in my heart, not in my pocket" and cannot believe no cited in this article is someone who could have explained our intentions. I am from this area and have been one of many who are trying to support change. Yet, not matter what we do, we are seen as being racist. One, I am a member who is Dine and Gallup and the surrounding area is my home. Yes, there are people who are non-native in the group, but they are trying support change as all citizens should. I feel that many are quick to judge rather than try to help or ask the right questions. For one, I met with Jeremy Yazzie and tried explaining our stance, and I am not a white male nor are others in our group. We as a group understand that the issues in Gallup requires more than a band-aid kind of effort, and based on our city's history we need more support and better understanding of what a job we have in front of us. I ask that our Native people, please, ashoodii, understand that we are trying and that we need help more than we need opposition or negativity. I have dealt with the pain of alcoholism and hope that people understand that those of on the group have dealt with these issues and only want a better community for our families, of every background. Follow the link to my story:

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I'm sad to hear this about a city in my home state. Truth be told, my home town (in southern NM) suffers racism as well, but our proximity to the Mexican border concentrates the racists on Mexican-Americans instead of Natives. ___________________________________________________________- I'm afraid the plain fact is that many White people in government simply don't like dark-skinned people. They're equal opportunity racists, they hate everyone equally.

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
An obvious blight for those of "us" who see it, live with it, go back to it, i.e. parents/family living on the reservation. Instead, those shouting/yelling/writing the loudest for 'equality' are consumed with US national topics as race, i.e. Redskins. That politic debate has no direct impact on the every-day survival issues of tribal people struggling to survive. There are enough, young, informed, educated native/indian/indigenous professionals that travel to Gallup, through Gallup to see and witness. They have HAD the opportunities galore this internet generation (1994-2014) to speak and proclaim the "atrocities" of reservation living. How about challenging the current White House and their US Indian Affairs policies as many promises were cited in 2008 and 2012. Where or what is the current indian affairs relationship? Unfortunately and apparently, those who can make a change are consumed being consumed by race and bigotry to not just one side but BOTH SIDES! Meanwhile reservation living continues even without the confines of the Starbucks Coffee shops.

ppmickey's picture
Submitted by ppmickey on
This is really sad news to hear. I know it's gone on for such a long time, but it would seem that since it's the 21st century, that we would have moved beyond all this hate and bigotry.

HCharlie's picture
Submitted by HCharlie on
This is what happens when politicians and business owners make the rules and regulations to cater to "their own"...they have always came as 'wolves in sheep's clothing. The regulations have been written against land owners & live stock owners since the beginning, including water rights; while "they" can mass produce for profits... Now they r regulating everyone's homestead- "They" have always put all "Natives/Indigenous people" a disadvantage. Why do you think the food stamp offices and social security administration is in that town. They counted the natives traveling there and used YOU in their census for Government funding. Plus the college(???) and hospitals built like malls...You all are counted in ALL that funding. stop giving it to that town, if they want to talk smack!!!I have been to Worst cities then there...throughout the USA.. why are they saying this about Natives???unless THEY want more money$$$$...Not for you- For them!to provide jobs for their own! Please Recognize "THE GAME"-hc

James Tolliver
James Tolliver
Submitted by James Tolliver on
In 1998 I bought a ring at a jewelry shop in Gallup that was a short distance away from a mosque. The young man who sold me the ring was a young Palestinian named Chad. It was friendly and I'd gone back to the shop a couple of times over the years and said hi and what not. Last March, I was beating feet to get to Amarillo on an emergency.when on the edge of Gallup I saw that billboard that proclaimed Gallup to be “America’s Most Patriotic Small Town." Said proclamation scared me enough to exit the freeway to check on the well being of my Palestinian friend and that of his mosque. Pardon me but,it's kind of fucked that this billboard would cause fear for the well being of my friends who are "different(?)" Anyway, coming back, I saw more of what you speak of.there in Gallup. It is sad and we want to help.