Nick Estes
Maxine Hanley spent decades on the streets. She’s now sober and living in transitional housing at C.A.R.E. 66 in Gallup, New Mexico.

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

Nick Estes

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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andre's picture
Submitted by andre on
"While these statistics paint a bleak picture of Native America, Indigenous scholars Maggie Walter (Trawlwoolway) and Chris Andersen (Métis) warn in their book Indigenous Statistics how these statistics can create “deficit Indigenes”—or negative perceptions of Indigenous Peoples when compared to other groups." Maxine is to be applauded for overcoming her struggles. Most do not. The problems Natives face in border towns is very pervasive. It's taken years of neglect and the systematic abuse by society to create the social problems we see here. Traveling, takes me to various tribes in the northwest and Natives in every community I visit face the same overwhelming obstacles and challenges. The worst part of this is knowing that the churches and governments that allowed these conditions to occur are doing next to nothing to reverse the conditions that foster generational abuse and alcoholism.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I live in southern New Mexico 40 miles north of El Paso, Texas and 41 miles north of Juarez, Mexico. Abuse, neglect, gangs and drugs dominate the concerns here, but they don't seem to be a major problem in our city. I know that things are much worse up north in Albuquerque. What can be done? Jobs would be a great help as would homeless shelters and substance abuse rehab centers, but these cost money and with our current political climate it would be near impossible to pass taxes to help others (but apparently NOT impossible to ask for continued tax breaks for the richest 1%).

CJKlepper's picture
Submitted by CJKlepper on
I often asked myself; ‘Why Native Americans socio-eco problems are not being addressed by their respective tribes and our country”? Having grown up and lived two-thirds of my adult life off of the reservation, it is hard for me to comprehend the lives of our Native people who are still being chastised for social issues which mainly begin with behavioral and economic problems on the reservations. While there are other Native Americans across our country that have assimilated to the world outside of their respective reservations; the Navajos, the largest tribe in the Nation, still have issues with the social ills brought on by alcohol consumptions and now drugs. Then there are the accountability issues of our leaders on the Navajo Nation. It’s time for the incoming, well-educated, President-elect, who understands human psychology to make these social issues priorities by educating our young people to be responsible for their own actions and not follow the alcoholic path their parents or relatives have taken. In addition to education, behavioral programs need to be established on the reservation starting at the “chapter house” level where people have immediate access to their needs.

CJKlepper's picture
Submitted by CJKlepper on
After having read one of the comments regarding the richest 1%, which I take it to mean relying on the Federal government for handout by our Native Americans across the Nation. We can not forever rely on handouts from the Feds. Some of our Native Americans have revenues coming in from their casinos and they are much smaller than the Navajo reservations which is the subject of these 'border town' problems. The Navajo leaders have mis-managed and -appropriated millions of the Federal money and in one case the Feds want them to return the money as it was never used for what it was intended. It is up to our Native American leaders to come up with some resolutions to these social ills.

Marc Severson
Submitted by Marc Severson on
It is long since time in this country that we offer treatment to those in need and stop incarcerating them.

Flower's picture
Submitted by Flower on
I believe the break to this vicious cycle stems in putting greater focus and effort on our youth and helping them NOT to grow into adults who are broken and have lost hope. Many of our children today both on and off the reservation see and experience violence and tragedy on varied levels, but they do not receive any professional psychological help to deal with these real life experiences. We need to prevent them from growing up into adults who mask their pain with alcohol and drugs, etc. We have at least 9 children in my tribe who have lost at least one parent from Jan to present and my heart breaks for the little ones who are left behind trying to deal with their loss and understand. I think our schools and health care facilities need to work together and provide greater long-term counseling and support to the children. I hope we find a healing solution as to why some drop out and give up on themselves before they even reach adulthood or either grow into adults who are none-the-less broken and the walking wounded.