How the US government are abandoning Native Americans
by Noah Dillon
A new visual project goes to Gallup, where opportunities are scarce and drinking hairspray and hand sanitizer are all part of ‘Chemical Sunday’ – life is hard for the Navajo people.
Across the border from my hometown sits the largest Indian Reservation in the United States. 27,000 square miles of solitude and mostly inhospitable terrain shackled to the saga of the Navajo people. Three million tourists per year, a 51 per cent alcoholism rate, and 42 per cent unemployment. Two out of every three Navajo women have been sexually assaulted. Louisiana's poverty rate – the highest in the nation – touches 23 per cent. Double that, and you’ll be close to the Navajo nation. Nearly half of the reservation lives without running water or electricity.
Welcome to Gallup. The most dangerous city in New Mexico, according to the FBI. The epicentre for Navajos, and the ‘Big Apple’ of the reservation. It sits along the famous Route 66 and thrives off passing tourists making their way west to destinations like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and California. Families cram into overpriced hotels, eating undercooked continental breakfasts and throwing money at what’s likely Chinese-sourced turquoise on the ‘main drag’ of town. If only they knew what lies on either side of the highway.
The scope of our ignorance is astounding. Ever present, the massive homeless population find themselves casualties of two wars – one foreign and one domestic. Many are veterans and came back to the reservation only to find alcoholism as the single employer. Lack of hope is palpable in most areas although there are a few – mainly the missionaries of charity – who have dedicated their lives trying to slow the inevitable.
The Navajo people. Their culture glorified, used, perverted, exploited, admired, thrown in a ditch to be consumed by scavengers. Icons of the West. A symbol of beauty and strength, drowning in a dry land. Like children going to the zoo we see only what want to, meanwhile failing to realise these people are caged in a prison we helped build but aren’t capable of tearing down by themselves.
You’ll never hear a Hillary or Trump speech about addressing Native American issues. Mainly because they don’t give a shit. Possibly because even if every Native voted, their voices probably wouldn’t swing an election one way or another. Perhaps we expect too much from corrupt lifelong politicians and arrogant businessmen. Sure, Washington throws a bone now and again by appointing a Native federal judge or something similar, but this is only to push a larger agenda fueled by personal legacy and party glorification. By virtue, most Navajos are quiet people whose voices trail off long before they reach the ears of media or government.
Our last day we met a young man, Orlando Walker. He runs Shallow Gallery, a space exclusively for Native artists. He explained that the youth of the reservation are seeing the curse of alcohol and resorting to sports and art in large numbers. The average age on the reservation is 24. Maybe there is hope. Gallup has a vibrant art scene propelled by people like Walker – if you were waiting for good news this is it. Many Navajo have found ways to blend tradition and progression by cultivating their land, raising animals and families. College attendance is growing quickly, in part to some institutions offering free tuition. Yes, many Navajo are thriving – but not enough.
Horses always reflect the demeanor of their owners. The reservation Mustangs aren't swayed by carrots and apples, never allowing visitors to come within 20 yards of their presence. It takes days to gain even the smallest amount of trust. Months to develop a relationship. Regardless of if you’re trying to pacify white guilt, or mask a publicity stunt for a few thousand followers with an ‘act of charity’, the Navajo people don't need a drive-by pity handout. They are one of us. They need real care and lasting action, to show that maybe, just maybe, Americans are finally on their side. After all, we live in the land of opportunity while they drift in a place where shooting for the stars will likely land you in a ditch.
Watch an excerpt of Chemical Sunday above.
Follow Noah Dillon on Twitter here @noahxviolet