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.
The brutality of the murder unsettled many in the Navajo LGBTQ community. But the murders of Navajos living on the street occurs regularly, Martin said. “You imagine them happening really far away, but they’re happening around here.”
Homeless Navajo elder Harry Dick feels the city and community doesn’t care about people living on the streets. “They just want another person dead,” he said. “I don’t want to talk like this, but it’s how it is. This is the worst place there is. Someone is dead every two days.”
“We’re treated like damn dogs, maybe worse,” Dick said. He claimed to be a victim of violence in February when Community Service Aide (CSA) officers broke his ankle after beating him with a flashlight. Months later, he still limps and walks with a cane.
The CSA officers, non-certified police officers, pick up “inebriates” and take them into protective custody. In New Mexico, public intoxication is not a crime. But state law allows law enforcement to take individuals into protective custody if they appear incapacitated, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, unable to care for themselves, or may be harmful to themselves or others. Protective custody also means individuals are not arrested, but transported to a treatment facility where they can be held up to 72 hours.
Gallup CSA officers use this protective custody law to pick up Native street people.
The black and white CSA vans racing up and down the main drags are as much an indelible feature as the city’s payday loan centers and pawn shops. The vans scour the town picking up “inebriates”—almost all Native—and hauling them off to the detox center on the east side of town where they are held and released after 12 hours.
The vans constantly circulate Native people, picking them up on the street and dropping them off at detox.
The Navajo Nation Behavioral Health Department assumed control of the detox center in 2013. The Navajo Nation is the main financial backer, but the city and county each use 10 percent of the county’s liquor excise tax to fund the center.
Some of the detox center’s clients, however, question the quality of treatment they receive.
Stella Martin’s younger brother, Raymond, is frequently picked up by the CSA vans and hauled to the detox center. He described CSA officers sometimes wrestling Native people into their vans: “They’ll throw you down, they’ll throw you all over. They’ll just pile you up in the back of the van. People will be stacked, laying on top of each other.”
At detox, Raymond said he often slept on the concrete floor in a big, open room. People complain of missing money, food-stamps, and personal items when they are released, he said. He also said younger Natives “come in all rowdy” beat and attack older ones. “There are no cameras in there.” The only food they serve, Raymond said, was what he called “county burgers,” or baloney sandwiches.
Raymond was also picked up once when he was sober when trying to hitch a ride. Forced to ride all the way to the detox center and take a breathalyzer, he had to walk miles back to where he was.
But Mayor McKinney, a major supporter of the Change In My Heart campaign, sees the problem from a different perspective, one that centers on individual choice and alcoholism. “Drinking alcohol is a choice of every individual,” he said. “These people are not making the right choices.”
While alcoholism is one aspect of a larger problem, Jeremy Yazzie doesn’t feel like it addresses the structural problems that create poverty. On the first of every month, he said, in the downtown area “all these grandmas and grandpas just line up around the corner paying their loans.” Most are from the Navajo Nation who begin forming lines as early as 7 a.m., Yazzie said.
Several of these loan centers, offering high interest payday and title loans, are located in the city’s Business Improvement District (BID). The city’s BID began in 2009 in effort to spur commercial development and improvement of the downtown area which, according to the group’s articles of incorporation, “benefits the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Gallup.”
But Stella Martin sees the Change In My Heart campaign as an offshoot of the BID. She feels the projects are part of gentrification and don’t address Native homelessness and poverty.
“There’s really no outreach from the city officials,” she said. “It’s deliberate that they’re keeping us out.”
Martin also sees a lack of Native community involvement with city politics, but acknowledges many Navajos are involved in these economic projects and the Change In My Heart campaign as business owners and middle class residents.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “They oppress their own people.”
“I don’t get how people don’t see it and who aren’t more enraged or outraged about these things.”