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Why Violence Persists in New Mexico's Indigenous Border Towns

Many of the state’s Indigenous residents live or depend upon its border towns where they have long come to work and trade. But they exist against a backdrop of racism, poverty, murder, police violence, and preventable deaths.

by Samuel Gilbert; photos by Adria Malcolm
Sep 9 2019, 2:46pm

Ambrose Ashley grew up in foster systems in the border towns of Gallup and Farmington in New Mexico. In Gallup, the poverty rate is over 40 percent for its Indigenous residents, while Farmington has a history of racial violence against Native Americans.

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One March night last year, two teenagers briefly sneaked away from a hotel party in Albuquerque, New Mexico, intent on murdering a Native American homeless man before returning to the festivities. Surveillance footage showed 50-year-old Ronnie Ross running in the early morning as gunfire flashed behind him. According to police, the teens had shot Ross 12 times, and later admitted to doing it “for fun.”

Four years earlier, three teenagers approached a group of Navajo men sleeping on a mattress in a vacant lot in Albuquerque. The perpetrators were prowling for homeless men—44 percent of the homeless population in Albuquerque is Native—as they had done at least 50 times before. The teens giggled as they beat the three men with their fists, pieces of cinder blocks, and metal pipes. When two of the men, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, were later found dead, they had been disfigured beyond recognition.

These murders shocked the city, but they also brought into focus a larger issue: the long-standing legacy of violence experienced by Native Americans in majority-white urban spaces abutting tribal lands. In New Mexico, many of the state’s 200,000 Indigenous residents live or depend upon the border towns of Albuquerque, Farmington, and Gallup, where Native people have long come to work and trade. “The problem of violence against Navajos in border towns remains as pervasive as at the onset of colonialism,” wrote Jennifer Nez Denetdale, the chair of the Navajo Human Rights Council.

Thrill-seeking hate crimes like the Albuquerque murders, perpetrated by non-Natives against homeless Indigenous people, have come to be known as “Indian rolling.” They exist against a backdrop of racism, poverty, murder, police violence, and preventable deaths that are a part of daily life for Native people. In 2010, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Council published a report based on 25 public hearings in border towns. Attendees spoke of discriminatory employment practices, denial of public services, predatory industries, and police brutality. According to Denetdale, “the murders in Albuquerque are only visible examples of this sustained pattern of Indian rolling.”

Indigenous border towns have existed since conquest, springing up along the edges of tribal lands where few resources or opportunities exist. For more than a century Native Americans from the nearby reservations have depended on border towns for supplies, food, employment, and entertainment. Border towns depend upon the products, labor, and economic activity of Native Americans (70 cents of every Navajo dollar is spent in border towns), yet power and resources are disproportionately held by non-Native residents.

Hope Alvarado, a formerly unsheltered person from the Mescalero Apache and Navajo nations who now works at the Indigenous Rights Center in Albuquerque, spent much of their younger years in Gallup. “It is so anti-Indian yet it relies on Native people,” said Alvarado, explaining the importance of Native wares to Gallup’s economy. “It’s a settler community that benefits off Indigenous labor and products.”

Displacement, forced migration, and a lack of resources, opportunity, housing, and social services on tribal reservations have pushed more and more people into urban spaces where some 71 percent of Indigenous people now live. “The reason why I left was issues back home,” said Gordon Yawakie, a formerly homeless man from the Zuni pueblo who now works at the Indian Center in Albuquerque. “You see violence, child abuse, and poverty on the reservation. We have no other choice but to come to these towns.”

Gallup, a city of 22,000 in northwestern New Mexico, is encircled by the Navajo and Zuni nations. Route 66 runs through the center of town. The streets of the historic highway are lined with pawnshops, payday lenders, bars, and dozens of white-owned “trading posts” peddling authentic Native American wares.

The “Heart of Indian Country,” as the city calls itself, is a place where power and resources are disproportionately held by non-Natives. The poverty rate is over 40 percent for its Indigenous residents. The college graduation rate is about a quarter that of white residents, according to census data gathered by the website World Population Review. Enabled by a predatory liquor industry, alcohol-related deaths in McKinley County, where Gallup is located, are the highest in the state. According to USA Today, Gallup is one of the poorest and most violent places in the state.

Ambrose Ashley did not choose to grow up there.

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After decades of hard drinking to cope with the layers of trauma he experienced, Ashley put himself into alcohol treatment at the VA and started attending AA meetings at the Indian Center in Albuquerque. He now runs his own AA meetings there three times a week and provides guidance and support for other Native Americans struggling with alcoholism.

“They came late at night,” said Ashley, recounting the evening when authorities removed him and four of his brothers from their mother at the Navajo Nation and placed them in Gallup with non-Native foster parents.

For six years they lived in a small, dark basement. Ashley, who was almost 6 years old when he arrived, described being “put to work.” “I had to raise chickens, clean the yard, and bathe my younger brothers because they [his foster parents] wouldn’t do it,” he said. “In a way, I became a parent at that young age.” He was disconnected from his culture and family like so many other Native Americans historically forced into foster care and boarding schools.

At 12, Ashley was moved to another foster home in Gallup. Soon after, he was sent to a mission school in Farmington, another Navajo border town with a history of racial violence against Native Americans. It was there he started drinking as a way to cope with the layers of trauma—“cultural, historical, and personal”—that he experienced. When he finished high school, he volunteered to go to Vietnam.

“My therapist said, ‘You had PTSD before you went into the Marine Corps,’” he said. “Trauma is part of being Indian.”

After four years in the Marines, Ashley found his way back to Gallup. He drank heavily, hitchhiking to various towns bordering the Navajo reservation. Many nights he would end up unsheltered trying to escape the cold and dangerous streets of Gallup and Farmington. “I would go to the local cafe until morning or try and sneak into a hotel room. Anything to find a place that was safe and warm.”

The widespread urbanization of the Native American population—71 percent now live in cities as of 2010—has come with devastating consequences. U.S. policies of displacement have not only isolated people like Ashley from their communities, lands, and culture but also subjected them to cities and towns where racism and violence are ever present.

“We are still treated like we don’t belong,” said Denetdale, “like we’re the invaders.”

For many like Ashley, alcohol became a means of escaping this feeling, and opportunities to escape were everywhere. According to David Correia, a professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, in the 70s and 80s “Gallup had 39 liquor stores, 32 more than allowed under a 1956 law limiting liquor establishments to one per 2,000 people.” Denetdale added, “These industries are part of the fabric of border towns. Preying on people in poverty is profitable.”

“Payday lenders, pawnshops, and liquor stores in Gallup continue to exploit Natives and reap huge profits,” reads the 2016 “Gallup Report” by the Red Nation, a group of organizers, activists, and educators from both Native and non-Native communities that emerged after 20 Native people died on the streets of Gallup in the winter of 2014–15. “These highly exploitative enterprises create an economic and social system in Gallup that not only profits from the immiseration of Native life, but literally depends on it.”

Advocates say these liquor stores have enabled widespread alcoholism. This, in combination with the lack of housing or public services, has led to a crisis of exposure deaths as unsheltered Native Americans continue to die on the cold streets of Gallup. “It’s the same cycle every season,” said Denetdale, who attended the protest in Gallup organized by the Red Nation in 2015 in the wake of the deaths. “This is another form of border violence.”

In 1993, when he was 44, Ashley blacked out while driving down a one-way street in the middle of the night. “I could have killed myself or someone else,” he said. By that time, he had accumulated at least 10 DUIs in decades of hard drinking.

He put himself into alcohol treatment at the VA and started to attend AA meetings at the Indian Center. It was transformative for him. Through the meetings, he found faith and a community of people with similar experiences. In the early 2000s, he began running AA meetings at the center.

“Sometimes people drink for no reason,” said Ashley, speaking to a group of Native American men at a recent AA meeting at the Indian Center. “Us Natives have all the reasons in the world.”

For Ashley, it all reinforces the sense that the lives of Native American people are not valued. Discrimination becomes internalized. Trauma becomes a regular part of life. “We don’t count,” said Ashley. “Violence is so natural it has become common.”

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