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Earth Notes

Navajos March on Farmington

By Daniel Kraker

Farmington, NM – Host Intro:

Racial tensions are flaring in a border town in New Mexico. But not along the Mexican border - in Farmington, on the northeastern edge of the Navajo Nation.
From KNAU's Indian Country News Bureau, Daniel Kraker reports.

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This past weekend, hundreds of mostly Navajo people marched into the city of Farmington. The walk was peaceful and quiet, save for the beat of a solitary drum.

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Organizers were careful not to label it a protest march. Rather they said they were honoring victims of racial violence. Daryl Joe drove in from the nearby reservation town of Shiprock to take part in the walk. Six years ago her sister-in-law was murdered by a Farmington man who's now on death row for killing several Navajos. She says Navajos have always labeled Farmington as a city of discrimination.

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AX: We all see it every now and then, but then you come to the Navajo Nation, there are people like that too We have our tradition, we call Kii, it's just coming together in harmony and working together, and that's something we're hoping this march will bring.

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AX: This morning it's hard for us to be here to say we're all marching for peace, and then there's these truckers and cars go by you know flipping the bird at us, we're going to see that, but we're above that, we're going to stand strong.

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Two primary incidents this summer have inflamed the ever present tensions here. First a Navajo named William Blackie was severely beaten by three white teenagers in June. The teens allegedly yelled racial slurs while they beat him. The trio has been charged with hate crimes. Six days later a Navajo man was shot and killed by a white police officer in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The San Juan County sheriff's office investigated and said the officer acted in self defense. But now the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the shooting.

AX: There's no justice in Farmington for Navajos

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Mike Toledo, a young Navajo with jet-black hair spilling down his back, came to the march and to a rally held afterwards. He stepped onto the stage to address the crowd. His body visibly shook.

these white people, they don't think about us, they just want our money, that's what keeps Farmington going, but they still treat us like crap. I'm just upset, that's all I've got to say.

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Farmington city manager Bob Hudson understands the anger and the motives for the memorial walk. But he disputes the discrimination label.

AX: I don't think we're a city that does not welcome people of color, I'm sure there are many people that feel they've been wronged, I also know of many people that have raised their families here and they've never felt any injustices occur here.

Hudson does acknowledge the recent beating of William Blackie was embarrassing for the city.

AX: But I will ensure you that it is isolated, it may not be the only incident that happened within the last two or three years, but clearly it's not something that happens on a daily, weekly, or even a monthly basis, there's been great strides since the 70s until now.

Hudson's referring to a gruesome murder in Farmington that took place in the 1970s. The city made national headlines when three Navajo men were tortured and killed by a group of white teenagers. The town was dubbed the Selma of the Southwest. Author and former journalist Rod Barker wrote a book about the 1970s murders called The Broken Circle. He uncovered a practice known as rolling Indians.

AX: What I found was there had been a whole history in Farmington of young white boys going out and what they called rolling drunk Navajos which is pick em up, take em out, beat em up for their belt buckles, for their hats, their boots, which became sort of like trophies, and over time this became almost a right of passage.

Since then the city and tribe have partnered on a successful rehab center. There are more Navajo business owners in Farmington. Two Navajos now serve as San Juan County Commissioners. And the city is working to create a human rights commission where Native Americans can formally voice their concerns.

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Despite those efforts, march organizer Duane Yazzie says racial relations in Farmington remain tenuous.

AX: I think a lot will depend on how the court system treats the three individuals that are charged in the William Blackie beating, but right now things are less than positive.

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Still, author Rod Barker says things are more positive now than they were thirty years ago.

AX: I think Farmington has changed, I think there's a capacity for contemplation and reflection that wasn't there previous, but there are going to be inherent problems in a border community, where you have two very, very different cultures.

Because of that inherent tension, march organizers say they're planning other peaceful walks in Gallup, Flagstaff, Winslow and Page. The Navajo Nation has also set aside 300 thousand dollars for victims' families, and to study the effects of racism in border towns.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker in Farmington.