Violence Against American Indians is a Pervasive Problem
From the beginning, white Americans have brutalized American Indians. Half a millennium later, the hate goes on.
by Susy Buchanan
FARMINGTON, N.M. -- William Blackie's money ran out near midnight. His luck soon followed.
It was a Saturday night, last June 4, when Blackie, a 46-year-old Navajo, left the bar at the Anasazi Inn on foot, walking west along one of Farmington's main drags. He later told police he'd only made it as far as the parking lot of the American Furniture store, a few blocks from the inn, when three white youths in a white pickup, who later admitted they were trolling for a victim, pulled alongside. They offered to give him a ride if he'd buy them beer with their money.
Blackie agreed, and one of the men, C.L. Carnie, 20, got out of the cab and into the bed of the pickup, leaving Blackie to slide in next to passenger Freddie Brooks, also 20. In the driver's seat was 18-year-old John Winer, 6-foot, 5-inches, a ball cap pulled over his shaved head.
As the truck pulled away from the parking lot it headed the wrong direction, away from town.
Winer announced they weren't buying beer after all. Instead, he said, they were going to a "party" in a secluded area just north of town known as The Glades, a scrubby system of juniper- and sage-lined trails frequented by teenage partiers and mountain bikers.
Blackie sensed trouble. He asked Winer to pull over so he could relieve himself and Winer did, but no sooner had Blackie stepped out than he was clocked hard and fast in the head with a club. He fell to the ground and tried to crawl away as the men stomped and kicked his prone body, shouting, "Die nigger! Just die!"
When Blackie's pockets revealed only crumpled receipts and a bottle of medicine, Winer later told police they decided to "cut their losses," and left their victim bleeding in the desert. The taillights of the truck disappeared into the night.
Blackie didn't need a mirror to know he was in a bad way. He could smell the blood pouring from the gaping wound in his head, and taste it streaming past his lips. Blood coated his neck and arms and quickly saturated his T-shirt.
When he was sure the attackers had gone, Blackie dialed 911. He told the dispatcher he'd just been beat up by three white guys, didn't know where he was, and pleaded for help.
Police were able to track his location through his cell phone and arrived 10 minutes later. Their report characterized Blackie's demeanor upon their arrival as "traumatized, untrusting and intimidated." He repeatedly begged officers not to shoot him.
Farmington, N.M. has a history of crimes against American Indians that dates back to the 1870s. Jackie Mercandetti photo.
Anonymous tips led police to Winer, Carnie, and Brooks. All three have been charged with felony assault and kidnapping. They have also been charged with hate crimes, marking the first time prosecutors have ever filed hate crime charges in Farmington, a town with a history of brutal crimes against American Indians that dates back to the 1870s, when white residents reportedly used Navajos for target practice, shooting them on the streets for fun.
In addition to setting a legal precedent, the attack on Blackie added to an alarming litany of violent crimes against American Indians that is not unique to this region of northwestern New Mexico. Violence against American Indians, much of it motivated by racial hatred, is a pervasive yet obscure problem that is especially prevalent in so-called "border towns" -- majority-white cities abutting reservations -- where cultures clash against the historical backdrop of institutionalized racism, cultural subjugation, and genocide.
The Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a government fact-finding agency, said as much in 2003, when it proposed a large-scale investigation of racism and related issues in the border towns of seven states. But funding for the study was not forthcoming under the Bush Administration, according to commission regional director John Dulles.
Barbara Perry, a social science professor at the University of Ontario, has traveled the country in recent years to interview nearly 300 American Indians in the first large-scale study of hate crimes in border towns. She estimates that only around 10% of hate crimes against Native Americans are reported to law enforcement authorities, blaming the low reporting rate in large part on "historical and contemporary experience with the police, and the perception they do not take Native American victimization seriously."
Even the FBI's 2005 statistics on hate crimes that were reported to police show that while American Indians and Alaska Natives comprise only 1% of the U.S. population, they represent 2% of victims of racially motivated hate crimes. In 2004, a U.S. Department of Justice 10-year study entitled "American Indians and Crime" found a "disturbing picture of the victimization of American Indians and Alaska Natives."
According to the Department of Justice study, the overall violent crime rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives is 100 per 1,000 persons, meaning one out of 10 American Indians or Native Americans has been a victim of violence. That rate is twice as high as the rate for blacks, two and a half times higher than whites, and four and a half times higher than Asians.
The study also found that "American Indians are more likely than people of other races to experience violence at the hands of someone of a different race," with 70% of reported violent attacks perpetrated by non-Indians.
Even to seasoned crime statisticians, the results were startling. "We now know that American Indians experience a much greater exposure to violence than other race groups," said co-author Lawrence A. Greenfeld. "The common wisdom was that blacks experience the highest exposure to violence."
But the results didn't come as a surprise to Navajo leaders, who have long referred to Farmington as the "Selma, Ala., of the Southwest."
"Just as some areas of the South remain hotbeds of racism because of the history of slavery and discrimination, the same can be said of areas where there are large Indian populations," said Raymond Foxworth, a scholarship coordinator for the American Indian College Fund who grew up on the Navajo reservation. "The historical treatment of Indians does indeed have contemporary significance. If we are willing to admit this about other groups, why can't the same be said with Indians?"
Krazy Kowboy Killers
Many incidents of violence against American Indians are easy to identify as racially motivated crimes, such as the assault last July 30 on 16-year-old Jordan Gruver at a county fair in Brandenburg, Ky. According to law enforcement reports, Gruver was beaten, kicked, spit on and doused with whiskey by two Klan skinheads who mistook him for an illegal immigrant. As they began their assault, calling him a "spic," Gruver protested that he was actually Native American. But what his race was apparently didn't matter to his tormentors so much as the race he wasn't -- white -- and they proceeded to break his jaw, ribs, wrist and teeth.
The assault on Gruver was, by all appearances, a case of violence motivated primarily by prejudice and racial hatred -- Gruver was not robbed, did not know his attackers, and was apparently chosen at random in a public place, based on the color of his skin.
But in many other cases, American Indian victims of violence have been robbed as well as beaten, and seem to have been targeted as victims of opportunity. Often they were inebriated, alone, homeless, or all three. These factors often cloak the fundamental racism that frequently drives widespread violence against American Indians, whose history of persecution is longer than that of any other minority group in this country.
That history, marked by displacement, disease, and mass murder, has been glorified in Hollywood even as it's glossed over in history textbooks. When Teddy Roosevelt in 1886 said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn't inquire too closely into the case of the 10th," the future president and war hero was simply voicing popular opinion, the sadistic echoes of which reverberate today.
"You have to look at the history of Farmington and the Four Corners area [where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet] and tie in the mythology and stereotypes about Indians who, until very recently, we've considered savages," says Dulles, of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "It is possible that some white teenagers may not understand that [American Indians] are fellow human beings and somehow think they are of lesser significance. There are people who attack an Indian and don't consider it quite the same as attacking [a member of] another race."
The Indians who've been attacked in the Four Corners region of New Mexico comprise a bitter and bloody roster of hundreds. In just the past decade, the victims have included Roy Castiano, a Navajo who in 1997 suffered a brain hemorrhage when he was beaten and kicked by four local men in Farmington. When police asked one of them, Blake Redding, why he and his cohorts had "rolled" Castiano, Redding replied, "Three-quarters of it was because he was Indian."
The next year, Donald Tsosie was beaten to death with a shovel and tossed into a ravine. Then in 2000, Betty Lee accepted a ride from a white stranger, and ended up dead on the side of the road, her skull crushed with a sledgehammer.
The men later convicted of the murders of Tsosie and Lee were part of a loosely affiliated gang of whites that went by the name KKK -- for "Krazy Kowboy Killers."
Chili Yazzi, a local leader of the Navajo Nation, lost his arm to an unprovoked attack by a white hitchhiker in 1978. Nevertheless, government officials credit the "reasonable radical" with calming racial tensions. Jackie Mercandetti photo.
Chili Yazzie, president of the Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation (the equivalent of the mayor of the closest reservation town to Farmington), was himself victimized back in 1978, when a white hitchhiker blew Yazzie's right arm off with two blasts from a .44 Magnum. The first bullet shattered the bones in his arm and continued into his rib cage. "The whole world was the color of a really bad sandstorm," Yazzie recalls. "Out of his poncho I saw a hole and some smoke coming out. I realized that he had a pistol pointed at me all this time from under his poncho."
"I asked him, 'What are you doing, you crazy son of a bastard?' Then he shot me again."
Yazzie spent a month in the hospital. The shooter served less than five years.
Back then, Yazzie was a member of the radical American Indian Movement as well as the famous rock-and-roll protest band X-IT, which provided the soundtrack for the Red Power movement. Now 56, his black hair is woven with wisps of grey. His tactics have mellowed and his rhetoric has softened, but he remains a dedicated advocate for his people.
In 1974, four years before he was shot, Yazzie took part in a series of dramatic marches organized by Farmington Navajos in response to a brutal triple-murder. Last September, 32 years later, Yazzie found himself leading a similar march of 1,500 Navajos protesting racism and violence after the attack on William Blackie, which occurred just two weeks after an assault on a Navajo undercover police officer by a white man with a knife.
Yazzie says tempers ran hot among Navajos.
In 1974, a riot broke out in downtown Farmington amid escalating racial tensions provoked by the torture murders of three Navajo men. Farmington Daily Times photo.
"There were guys that wanted to come in here and take an eye for an eye. There are people capable of doing that," he says somberly. Yazzie likes to call himself a "reasonable radical," and his cool head calmed an explosive situation.
"Chili Yazzie represents a new type of leadership in Navajo Country," says the Commission on Civil Rights' Dulles, adding that without Yazzie's influence on the community this summer, "There could have been serious disturbances, confrontations, even riots."
In the wake of several racially charged incidents, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan met with Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley. The black separatist argued that marches "will never with the respect" of the local whites. AP World Wide photo.
Instead, the Sept. 2 memorial walk to commemorate victims of hate crimes was peaceful. Too peaceful for the likes of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley had consulted with in July during a visit to the Navajo capitol in Window Rock.
"Marching is okay, I'm not saying it isn't," Farrakhan said, "but marching will never win the respect of those who are already looking down on us."
Yazzie doesn't put much stock in what Farrakhan thinks, and considers him an unwelcome ally. "The walk was enough for those people who wanted to do something," he says.
Speaking slowly, his words carefully measured, Yazzie says that Farmington is haunted by racially motivated violence. As he speaks, the phantom of his missing limb enters the conversation, as the stump of his right arm moves slightly under his suit jacket in concert with the sweeping gestures of his left.
Thirty-two years after a riot in Farmington, similar tensions brought 1,500 protestors into the town's streets after three white youths attacked and badly injured a Navajo man while spewing racial epithets. Unlike 1974, there was no violence. New York Times photo.
"I try to be fair to the city of Farmington," he says. "We recognize that the vast majority of the community are good people who do not tolerate racism. But there's a small group of people who make it difficult for everyone."
The latest episodes have resurrected bad memories of bodies bruised, beaten, and bludgeoned. Each time another Navajo is attacked it reopens wounds as deep as the canyons where many of their bodies have been found.
'Our Dusky Neighbors'
In one antique store, the white shopkeeper carefully wraps a porcelain mug with a caricature of a beaming Indian. "How! Me friendly," it reads.
"Isn't he just so cute!" the owner exclaims.
That's not the way American Indians are viewed by some residents of Farmington, who welcome Navajo money but not Navajos themselves. Like many reservation border towns, Farmington has a substantial transient population. Police and social workers estimate there are as many as 700 transients in Farmington, most of them American Indians.
"There is incredible mistreatment," says Adele Foutz, executive director of the Navajo United Methodist Shelter for battered women and children. "The community attitude is that they are dirty and smelly and shouldn't be walking the streets at all."
Critics say the refusal of many liquor stores in Farmington to serve pedestrians reflects a not-so-subtle racism. Jackie Mercandetti photo.
Many of the Navajo transients in Farmington abuse alcohol, which was deliberately introduced to their ancestors as a tool of conquest, more subtle perhaps than smallpox-infected blankets, but no less deadly in the long run. (According to the Department of Health and Human Services, alcohol-related deaths are 7.7 times higher among American Indians and Alaska Natives than the national average).
Alcohol abuse fuels hate crimes against American Indians in Farmington and elsewhere both by creating more vulnerable victims and by reinforcing the stereotypes that embolden violent racists.
"Violence is frequent, very frequent, and hard to get a handle on the cause. Was this violence perpetrated as a hate crime?" asks Paul Ehrlich the director of Totah Behavioral Health Authority, which treats substance abuse among the homeless. "We have encountered people who were beaten up on the street, or picked up on the street and taken out into the desert and beaten. People aren't willing to say exactly what happened."
The drunken Navajos living on the streets in Farmington today are in many ways the residual effects of a tradition of disdain that's as old as Farmington itself. In 1893, at a time when Indian children were forced to attend boarding schools where they were washed with lye and bleach to lighten their skin, the editors of the Farmington newspaper wrote: "There can be no doubt that some strict course must be pursued in order to place the dominant White race in a position of safety and quietude, with respect to our dusky and uncertain neighbors."
This Old West attitude of white entitlement and superiority has persisted through the decades. In 1950, town firemen dumped a bucket of red paint over two inebriated Navajos. In 1974, a quarter century later, a high school student boasted to anyone who'd listen that he carried the severed finger of a Navajo in his pocket. And in 2002, former Farmington Mayor Marlo Webb gave an interview for a documentary in which he sounded a lot like his predecessors in the late 1800s.
"They've culturally not come in to join what we call modern society," the mayor said of his Navajo neighbors. "They're not, they haven't been educated to do it. They're not equipped to do it. They're very backward."
Chokecherry Canyon was the scene of the 1974 torture murders of three Navajo men at the hands of teenage thugs. Marlo Webb, the mayor of nearby Farmington, described it then as just a case of "high school students rolling drunks." Jackie Mercandetti photo.
The most notorious hate crime in Farmington history occurred in April 1974, during Webb's first term as mayor. Three Navajos, Benjamin Benally, John Harvey, and David Ignacio were found bludgeoned, mutilated and burned in Chokecherry Canyon.
"They were tortured. Firecrackers were placed in their noses and anuses," says Yazzie, the Navajo leader. "As they were dying, they were burned. They tried to burn off their privates. Then these young guys got big boulders, basketball-sized, to make sure they were dead."
Three white Farmington High School students were arrested for the murders.
"We wanted to come in and burn the place," Yazzie, then a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), recalls. "The desire for payback was very strong. People were needing and demanding that something be done."
Navajos marched through Farmington on seven successive Sundays, effectively closing down the town. Tensions mounted. Business owners were hurting and increasingly vocal in their demands for the city to put a stop to the protests.
Adele Foutz manned a hotline designed to control rumors, which were rampant from both angry Navajos and fearful whites. "People would call up and say things like, 'We hear the Indians are on the warpath'," she recalls.
And some of them were. As author Rodney Barker recounts in his meticulously researched account of the crimes and their aftermath, Broken Circle, AIM member Lorenzo LeValdo warned the City Council: "If you don't give us what we want, we're going to give you some violence. … [W]e're going to do the same thing the blacks did in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and down south. I may not live to see the end of this but I'll tell you one thing, I'm gonna take a couple of you with me."
City council members began carrying guns.
Mayor Webb at the time likened himself to "Custer in a sea of brown faces." He told the Farmington Daily Times: "I don't think race had anything to do with [the murders]. Just high school students rolling drunks, and all the drunks were Navajos."
Things came to a head when a judge denied the district attorney's request to prosecute the young men as adults (two were 16 and one was 15) and sentenced the murderers to reform school.
The next day, city officials refused to grant protesters a permit to march due to a scheduling conflict with the annual sheriff's posse parade, whose unfortunate theme was "observing this ritual of reverence for the Old West."
The parade included a mounted ceremonial unit dressed in frontier uniforms, as they would have been when their principal mission was killing Indians. Coupled with the light sentences doled out to three convicted murderers the day before, the posse parade was viewed by Navajo activists as a deliberate provocation. When protesters tried to block the parade, one of the cavalry officers drew his sword. A riot broke out. Police fired teargas into the crowd and 30 people were arrested.
The murders, the marches, the riot, and the attendant media coverage brought the federal Commission on Civil Rights to Farmington in August of that year. Hearings conducted by John Dulles led to redistricting of election districts in San Juan County, which made it possible for Navajos to be elected to the County Commission for the first time. Subsequently, the Justice Department sued the county hospital for refusing to treat Navajos in its emergency room, and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission sued the city for employment discrimination.
In late 2005, 30 years after the Chokecherry Canyon murders, the Commission on Civil Rights released a report on race relations in Farmington that mostly praised the community for its progress, concluding, "The climate of tolerance and respect between the two cultures is a marked improvement from the conditions the Committee observed 30 years ago in 1974."
Yet seven months after the report was released, the beating of William Blackie summoned the restless ghosts of three dead Navajos in Chokecherry Canyon.
'A Mortal Illness'
Racial violence directed at American Indians and Alaska Natives today certainly does not approach the levels seen during the white settlement of the prairies and deserts of the western United States. And while it may be true that conditions have improved in Farmington, just as race relations on a larger scale between white Americans and indigenous Americans have improved since the era when Indians were routinely massacred as a matter of governmental policy, recent bloodshed in New Mexico, Kentucky and other states demonstrates that racially motivated attacks on American Indians and Alaska Natives are still extensive, and too often minimized.
"There has been little attempt by legal authorities or anyone else to understand the phenomenon of racially motivated violence in these communities," Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, professor emeritus of Native American Studies at Eastern Washington University, writes in her recent book Anti-Indianism in Modern America. "The first step is to acknowledge that anti-Indian hate crime is America's essential cancer and that it is a mortal illness, as devastating as anti-Semitism has been to other parts of the world."
Several hundred interviews into her own ongoing research on hate crimes against Indians, University of Ontario Professor Barbara Perry realized that such violence "is more than the act of mean-spirited bigots. It is embedded in the structural and cultural context within which groups interact. It does not occur in a social or cultural vacuum, nor is it over when the perpetrator moves on."