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Trip to New Mexico for Native American Program

January 14, 2010
I recently had the opportunity to travel to New Mexico, to visit a Navajo community there. I went with the goals of meeting people, getting a sense of what life is like in a rural Native American community, and collecting some stories that might help inform my work at FCNL, and motivate congresspeople to act on the bills we support. I spent most of my time with the Torreon Chapter of the Navajo Nation. While there I stayed with Pat Kutzner, a released Friend of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, who has been working with Torreon for over a decade. Below are some excerpts from my reflections on the week.

1/4/10: [I went to a meeting with some people from the senior center, the head start program, and a man named Leonard.] I was not given an introduction to this meeting, which was clearly the continuation of a previous conversation or conversations. As best as I could tell it was about concerns over sharing space while the senior center is rebuilt/restored after fire. (The chapter house was set on fire (they’re pretty certain it was arson) about a week before I got there. Some of the chapter officials had offices in there, and it also housed the senior center. The senior center is using the head start building, including their kitchen, for the time being).

It seemed like Leonard’s role was to mediate between the senior center (Joe’s day job is to run the senior center) and the head start people. A number of times he said something to the effect of, “If you guys can work it out between you, that’s great.” Joe asked him to “be on my side” a few times, but kind of with a twinkle in his eye. There was a lot of teasing during the meeting, particularly between the two men (who were the main people talking). At the beginning of the meeting Leonard was asking Joe why they hadn’t gotten the chapter house cleaned up yet. You wanted to take a longer holiday, didn’t you? You didn’t want to clean up because you were taking a longer holiday. He said this with a straight face, and Joe started defending himself, but Leonard turned to me and grinned or winked or something, to indicate that he was just giving Joe a hard time. Joe said, “We tease each other a lot.”

[I also met with Kialo, who works at the Torreon Day School.] It’s really hard to get business leases in the Navajo Nation. They have to go to Window Rock and there are lots of requirements. It all bottlenecks in one office. It is also really hard to get approval for home site leases; even if you have all your papers in order and meet all the requirements it is still a 3-4 year process. There is no guarantee that you will have plumbing or electricity. Kialo and his wife aren’t on the grid – they can see the main power line from their house, but to get a line to their house (which is wired and ready) would cost $30,000.

1/6/10: [This is from a phone conversation with Dr. McKinley, the psychologist for the day school. She is not from Torreon.] She thinks that socioeconomic status is the cause of most of the problems. They are not “Indian problems,” they are problems caused by being very poor and very isolated. The biggest problems she sees are substance abuse, isolation, and domestic abuse – these are all perpetuated by a failed justice system. When she’s gone to court for a student, she sees so many cases thrown out because police didn’t deliver the summons. Most cases don’t even make it to trial. It’s not just that there aren’t enough police, but that the justice system is not employed. Part of that may be a backlash against what is considered a white system – they (Navajo) see the justice system as having been imposed on them. People know that they can literally get away with murder, and they take advantage of that.

1/7/10: [The next day I drove to Crownpoint, 1 1/2 hours away, to visit the Navajo Technical College there. I spoke with Dr. Becenti, Dean of Outreach and Engagement.] Regarding the Tribal Law & Order Act: Having more access to criminal databases would be really good, as would more training. The area is currently lacking in basic databases and systems. The level of training of police is very low. Often if someone is pulled over for speeding or is arrested, nothing comes of it because the officers don’t write up reports. Dr. Becenti says this is often because they can’t read or write well enough to write up an intelligible report. Education is a really big problem. He has tried to start a class on police report writing at the college for the nearby police station, but they have so far declined the offer.

1/9/10: [On my last full day in Torreon, I went to Chaco Canyon with Leo Charley, who is very involved in the community and very knowledgeable.] Today I went with Leo Charley toChaco Canyon, which used to have all these villages of the ancestors of the Pueblo. Now it’s this big amazing canyon with lots of super cool ruins. He told me names for lots of things in Navajo – for Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito (one of the ruins), rabbit, sister, and brother. Also he told me the word for American Indian. I don’t remember the word, but he explained all of the parts of it to me – it means “a seed that becomes a living thing and comes up out of the ground and walks around.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2010 1:16 am

    Inez, so glad to see you made it out here and back and to read your observations. As you may know, several meetings support Pat Kutzner's good work at Torreon, including Durango Friends Meeting. A year or so ago, we had a work party there and painted the community store. The community story, as Pat probably told you, is the only 501(c)(3) in Torreon and so it is a catalyst/vehicle/incubator for much of Pat's work in community development.I'm glad, too, that you got to Crownpoint to visit one of the nation's tribal colleges. Navajo Technical College has an interesting complementary relationship with Diné College. The best part of your report for me was the section on your visit to Chaco, with the picture of you standing in front of Pueblo Bonito. I was superintendent of Chaco Culture NHP from Feb. 1985 to Jan. 1989 and Chaco Canyon holds a very prominent place in my heart. My family and I figure in Tony Hillerman's book, "Thief of Time," which is partly set at Chaco. Wish I could have been there to give you the guided tour, but having Leo as a guide was a special treat, too.

  2. January 27, 2010 6:35 pm

    Visit some other Indian communities. Each tribe is different. There is lots, lots more to learn about Indian country.

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