by Jeremy Yazzie
F*** you,” shouted an Anglo couple on a motorcycle speeding past the Gallup Chamber of Commerce on Highway 66 during The Red Nation’s (TRN) press conference, “Stop Racist Violence Against Natives,” on April 4.
I never imagined myself to be militant or radical.
I am fortunate to be born into an era where I do not have to protest for my rights as a gay man or even to vote as a Native, but when the opportunity presented itself, I was ready.
I held a protest sign with the name of a deceased Navajo person and shouted, “Stop racist violence against Navajos,” along with seventy other protesters who also carried protest signs with names of deceased Natives.
More Anglos drove by and shook their heads in humor, and Native families in dilapidated cars or shiny new trucks, some with grandfathers or grandmothers on the passenger side, simply smiled.
One hundred and seventy unnatural deaths of Natives have been documented within the Gallup city limits since the closure of the Na’ Nizhoozhi Detox Center in July of 2013, according to “Blood Money: Life and Death in Gallup, NM,” a January 14, 2015 article written by Nick Estes.
This is why I marched in solidarity through downtown Gallup, past predatory loan centers and pawnshops that exploit indigenous culture, to raise awareness about the City of Gallup’s lack of response to this human crisis.
TRN organized the march and press conference with the help of myself, Gallup resident Stella Johnson, and Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Albuquerque and elder advisor for TRN.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho, predatory loan centers have got to go,” chanted the marchers. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Jackie Mckinney has got to go.”
In April of 2014, I attended a community meeting at UNM Gallup hosted by the “Change In My Heart, Not In My Pocket” group, which is a collective of Anglo business owners, a pastor and community members urging citizens of Gallup and tourists to stop giving money to panhandlers.
Their message of compassion was, in my opinion, “bullshit.” While it targeted Native panhandlers specifically, they could not (or would not) admit this publicly.
From that day forward, I realized Gallup, most of its leaders, and the men who were associated with the “Change In My Heart” campaign, were committing injustices toward Native people. I could not just watch, so I got involved.
Cars honked their horns, fists were raised and extended out of car windows, and Navajo homeless men and women high-fived us as we walked to the Chamber of Commerce from where we started the march at Highway 66 and Arnold Street.
It was an experience that jolted my zest for advocacy because my presence and participation meant, “I am here and I am here for you.”
City police cars perched themselves at side streets, and police talked into their radios, probably asking if we had permits to march through the town.
We did not, and we did not care because we had security covered by the Albuquerque chapter of the American Indian Movement, which is a Native American advocacy group in the United States founded in July of 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Richardson’s Pawnshop has got to go.”
Traffic halted, Anglo tourists took pictures and videos with their smart phones, ostensibly for social media.
We had arrived at the Chamber of Commerce.
Immediately, we lined both sides of Highway 66 with the one hundred and seventy protest signs that bore the names of Natives who died from unnatural causes in Gallup, some from exposure to extreme winter conditions, some from motorists killing pedestrians, and some from homelessness. They were raised tombstones, visible to anyone driving past the press conference.
During the press conference, TRN demanded a joint ethical investigation of the current Gallup Detox Center by the City of Gallup and the Navajo Nation; abolition of criminalization and racial discrimination of Native people, especially the poor, homeless and GLBTQ people; abolition of cultural exploitation from pawnshops, payday loan offices and car dealerships; and regulations limiting liquor licenses that profit from the deaths of Native people.
Nick Estes, a UNM Albuquerque Ph.D. Student in American Studies and writer of the “Blood Money” article, visited Gallup along with Dr. Denetdale in August of 2014.
Estes said, “The racism in Gallup is so blatant. It’s in your face. And I’m from South Dakota.”
Este’s observation motivated me to tap into resources that are available to me as a college student. I searched databases and checked out books relating to racism, colonialism, Manifest Destiny and other imperialistic forces that are whitewashing my indigenous consciousness. This led me to join TRN.
During the press conference, co-organizer Johnson said, “The racism and violence of Gallup is costing human lives. Money is not what non-native business owners seek, it is only what they want. We as Native people have become expendable and a nuisance to their gentrified existence.”
The screaming train adjacent to the press conference was no match for the explosion of cheers, the protest signs, and the thunder of drums.
It was my time to step to the podium.
I quoted Maya Angelou quietly as I set my speech on the podium: “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.” That quote gave me the confidence to rise as an advocate, as a citizen of Gallup, and as a gay Navajo man to say, “We walk and stand here in solidarity for the names on these signs. We are here to make sure the City of Gallup is being held accountable for our relatives who will never see another blossoming spring or simply be loved.”
At UNM Gallup, there is no course dedicated to teach others or me how to be an activist. However, if I had to learn how to become one, I would learn from my scholarly confidant, Dr. Denetdale. During the April 4 press conference, Dr. Denetdale said, “We are not the aliens and we are not the invaders. This is our home. Gallup is indigenous land.”
Other speakers at the press conference included Navajo Nation Tribal Council Delegate Jonathan Perry, Grammy Nominee Radmilla Cody, Co-founder of TRN Melanie Yazzie, and Nihigaal Bee Iiná members.
The night before the march and press conference a friend and I organized the protest signs in my living room, and a heavy sadness washed over us. She said, “Stop because I don’t feel good. Do you realize all these names are relatives we lost?” Tears welled up in our eyes. We realized we had one hundred and seventy tombstones sitting in my living room.
I will continue to raise awareness about the injustices that are affecting Natives in Gallup because, as one of my beloved authors Alice Walker has said, “Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.” I urge everyone to take action, open your eyes, and speak up for those who are not strong enough to speak up for themselves.
Whether you are passionate about voting rights, feminism, gay rights, or recycling, take action, educate yourself, and let your presence and your voice be known.
College is the perfect opportunity to expand your consciousness and take action.
Through this experience, I have met activists who will continue to inspire me. I have also learned to not be afraid and to challenge and dismantle the dominant narrative’s propaganda of, “We are right and you are wrong.”
Do not underestimate me.
Jeremy Yazzie is a resident of Gallup who writes regularly for the UNM Gallup Campus Voice, where this editorial originally appeared.