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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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.

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