It is April 2015. I receive a message on Facebook informing me that there is to be a town meeting in Gallup, New Mexico, a particularly violent reservation border town (see map on page 12), where the residents will unveil an anti-panhandling campaign. The campaign is entitled “Change in my heart, not in my pocket.” It encourages consumers not to give money to panhandlers. Locals express their rationale for this campaign by questioning the wisdom of handing money to a problem drinker who is only going to buy another drink. But they also express their fears of being accosted by panhandlers who are seen as annoying and threatening. One architect of the campaign, Chuck Van Drunen, says he started to question if it really was compassionate to hand over a dollar to a homeless person and proposed that it was more compassionate to donate to local charities that feed and house the homeless and, perhaps, such a strategy might do more to improve the panhandler’s life. Van Drunen worried, “If you say, ‘Here’s a dollar,’ the reality is you may have helped contribute to their death that night.”
I am both curious and full of dread because I know that when Gallup talks about “panhandlers” and the urgency to contain them, who and what they are really talking about are my Diné people who walk the town’s streets. Settler towns like Gallup were established to exploit Native lands and labor for the benefit of settlers. The dispossession and expropriation of Native lands are upheld by a jurisdictional authority that benefits capitalists and settlers. The intention is to literally eliminate all life — water, bodies, subterranean elements, plants, or animals; in other words, all that Indigenous life is dependent upon — for the benefit of settlers. Border towns like Gallup fear Indigenous peoples in “their spaces” and simultaneously peddle their profit-making enterprises, many of which are exploitative and sustain Indigenous poverty.
I grew up in Tohatchi, a Navajo community approximately 25 miles from Gallup, and often traveled into Gallup with my parents for supplies for survival (food, clothing, gasoline, pawn, etc.) and then for entertainment, including movies, the annual Ceremonial, a restaurant meal, car service, and strolling downtown. My first wage work at the age of fifteen was in Gallup as a waitress at Virgie’s restaurant on the Route 66 strip. My first experience of witnessing public drunkenness was the crowd that came in on Friday and Saturday nights after the bars closed. Even today, when I return to my home in Tohatchi, I accompany my family into Gallup and like many other Diné, we simply do our business and leave. We rarely have any interaction with the town’s residents. Nor do we participate in the city’s governance. As a Diné woman growing up in the shadow of these border towns established on traditional Diné land, I remain acutely conscious of Indian hating; of discrimination and racism against Indigenous peoples. It has only been later in my life (with my own self-education) that I have acquired the language to name our treatment as sustained settler colonialism in these settlements.
Regardless of where we come from and who we are as Diné, when we come into the space of border towns like Gallup and other settlements that border the Navajo Nation, we are immediately cast as Indians in alien spaces. We are not supposed to be here. As Melanie K. Yazzie names it, being an Indian in border towns is always already a transgression of anti-Indian common sense that invites social and institutional control. We are contained in spaces and seen as problems. Our presence reminds settlers that we are the rightful occupants of the land.
The term “border town” is a common phrase for Native people. As Nick Estes writes in his work, it refers to the settlements, small towns or large cities, that ring or circumscribe the boundaries of designated Native nations. These spaces were carved out of traditional lands that were reduced through outright settler theft, treaty agreements, or seized by nation and state means. Demographically speaking, border towns have some of the largest Native populations made up of Natives living in these town and city spaces, but more often of Natives traveling back and forth across an imaginary line that divides Indigenous lands from off-reservation lands. As Yazzie, Estes, and David Correia point out, “Unlike virtually every other settlement in the US that recognizes Native presence only through absence and disappearance, their proximity to reservations means that border towns are brimming with actual vibrant, conspicuous Native life” (Nick Estes, Melanie Yazzie, Jennifer Denetdale, and David Correia, Border Town Violence, forthcoming).
Frontier histories of these towns center the arrival of whites or Hispanics who are lured to establish settlements by mining resources, taking advantage of the railroad that connected the U.S. east to the west by setting up trading posts, lodgings, and offering cafes and saloons. For examples, coal brought settlers to border towns like Gallup and Winslow where traders also arrived to take advantage of economic trade along the Santa Fe railroad. In the early 20th century, between the border towns of Holbrook and Winslow, saloons serviced not only the incoming Hashknife ranch hands from Texas who drove cattle onto grazing lands that Indigenous ranchers had used, but also introduced and bootlegged liquor to the Natives. These histories include the introduction of liquor to Native peoples and are still part of the pattern of exploitative business practices that structure how townspeople relate to Native peoples who necessarily come into these towns. Like other Indigenous nations, the Navajo Nation has poor infrastructure and high rates of poverty and unemployment while their resources enrich and create pockets of wealth in non-Indian towns and cities beyond its borders.
Having been raised around these border towns, I am also conscious of our Indigenous and Diné people’s refusal to be condemned to death. For more than five decades Navajo-led protests refuse the conditions that sustain anti-Indianism in these border towns where Natives are targeted for alcohol sales, tourism, the pawn industry, vehicle sales where interest rates are usurious, and cheap exploitative labor. Instead of confronting the ongoing impact of colonialism on Native life, settler townspeople and visiting consumers prefer to relate to Natives through well-established tropes of the Indian who dances and creates art for tourism. These tropes rely on non-threatening forms of Native culture and spirituality that allow settler consumers to ignore or distance themselves from the political demands and challenges that Native people pose to the colonial order of things.
As a 1950s report, “Indians in Non-Indian Communities: A Survey of Living Conditions among Navajo and Hopi Indians Residing in Gallup, New Mexico; Farmington, New Mexico; Cortez, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; Winslow, Arizona; Holbrook, Arizona,” on border towns narrates, when Natives, mostly Navajos, came into these towns looking for employment, they were cast to the town’s outskirts where they lived in shacks and tents with none of the amenities that the townspeople enjoyed, including bathrooms and running water. Indeed, the geography of Gallup is starkly divided into neighborhoods lined with the spacious homes of the tavern, liquor store, and payday loan lenders owners, while underground tunnels where unsheltered relatives travel from one side of town to the other literally carve out what is designated as “Indian space” in the city.
These conditions in border towns have not gone unnoticed or without response from Native people. In the 1970s, my parents often made family outings to events in Gallup like the Ceremonial, which is an annual event intended to attract non-Indian tourists to gaze at Indian dancing and buy Indian arts and crafts. We often drove past Navajos protesting as we entered the Ceremonial grounds when it was still on the north side of Gallup. Being eleven or twelve years old at the time, I didn’t know what was happening. Grassroots groups like the Coalition for Navajo Liberation and Indians Against Exploitation denounced the widespread discrimination where townspeople and tourists only wanted to view Indians who danced and made jewelry, while ignoring the numbers of liquor stores and bars that keep Indians perpetually inebriated on the streets where they were beaten, murdered, and arrested at much higher rates than any other population in these spaces. I also recall listening to my parents sit with my father’s relatives as they spoke in hushed tones about one of their relatives who had been tortured and mutilated before he was killed by white teenage boys who boasted about their kills at a high school in another notoriously violent border town named Farmington, New Mexico located along another part of the Navajo Nation boundary approximately two hours from Gallup (see map page 12). The term “Indian rolling” became part of the vernacular in these towns to describe a new sport; the sport of killing Indians.
To this day, killing an Indian is still not a crime.
Two of us drive to Gallup from Albuquerque, New Mexico to join my older sister at the meeting on the Gallup campus of the University of New Mexico where the proposed anti-panhandling campaign to discourage our relatives on the streets from asking for money is being held. We walk into the space and I am immediately and acutely conscious that this is not a Navajo- or Indigenous-friendly space. I feel the eyes of the local (mostly white) townspeople as we make our way into the room.o one says anything. All the other times I have been in hostile anti-Indian territory floods into my memory and I remember the day I came home from school and my mother tells me of her day — dad had been arrested after he objected to his bill at a Gallup store. The white woman in the store became alarmed and called the police who came and took dad to jail. Mom didn’t drive, so she had to wait outside until my dad was released. No charges were filed against him. Even at my early age, I felt some kind of satisfaction that my dad had objected to being treated like an Indian in this border town.
More people drift in and a few more Navajos arrive. The proposal is introduced and I keep waving my hand so that I can speak. Despite the large numbers of Natives and Navajos who live, shop, work in these border towns, and who come into these towns over the weekend, swelling the population by several thousands, there is virtually no Native political representation within either local governments or powerful organizations like local chambers of commerce. Native-owned businesses in these reservation border towns are a rarity. The few Native elites that exist in Gallup are here at this meeting.
After a long wait, I finally get the microphone and one of the speakers, a white man, immediately attempts to wrestle it away from me. I demand that I be allowed to finish what I have say, tell them that I have listened to them without such rudeness, and that they ignore the relationships between colonialism, Indian-hating, and their thirst for profit.
I tell them their practices continue a tradition of racism against Native and Navajo people. As soon as I end my talk, a white man grabs the microphone and announces that the meeting is over.
A year later in April 2016, I receive a text message about an article in the Gallup paper: the anti-panhandling campaign failed. Mayor Jackie McKinney recalls the reception of the plan the year before:“They got lambasted, being called racist. It really took a little wind out of their sails.” McKinney, who has lived in Gallup most of his life, said the reaction was shocking. “I’m not a racist,” he said. “Some of my best friends are Native Americans” (Albuquerque Journal, May 18, 2014).
Taking up the Indigenous struggle against such anti-Indianism, and inspired by those who stood for justice and liberation for Indigenous peoples, The Red Nation, a Native-led revolutionary organization that advocates Indigenous liberation both within and beyond the Left, worked with Native community people to address border town violence in Gallup and other border towns like Winslow. They hosted marches and rallies in these border town spaces, organized Indigenous liberation conferences, and collaborated with Native transwomen and Native feminist musicians to sponsor and organize “decolonial drag shows” that challenge the violence that Native people face on a daily basis in border towns. We still have so much work to do, which requires centering gender in our struggles. Native transwomen and ciswomen are frequently killed, harassed, and detained by police in border towns. As the work of Yazzie, Estes, and Correia illuminate, the connections between policing, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and settler colonialism are almost always ignored in conversations about police, and we have so much more work to do to make these connections visible. Like other racialized populations, unsheltered, trans, poor, mentally ill, and working class Natives are disproportionately targeted by these various and overlapping forms of policing. Anti-Indianism dictates that our very existence is a threat to the U.S. settler nation. And these border town settlements like Gallup epitomize anti-Indianism by demonstrating their willingness to exert extreme violence on Native peoples to contain this so-called threat. Containment, discipline, control, and removal are therefore always operating to address the perceived threat that Indigenous presence poses to the colonial order of things.
Border town violence describes the relations of power in the space of the reservation border town. It describes the specifically gendered ways that Native people experience, interpret, interact with, and traverse power in these spaces. My commentary on the lived reality of border town violence should give our relatives cause to stop and pay attention. My nephew shares his experience of watching a security guard command a person on the street to leave a business premise, becoming physically threatening to the person by pulling out a taser. My nephew pulled out his camera phone and began recording the incident. Too many times our own people ignore the conditions of Indian hating in these towns and prefer to think that we are not “those Indians.” My nephew’s actions caused the security guard to stop his harassment.
I encourage others to mirror his actions and stand up against anti-Indianism when they see it happening in these spaces.