Most people probably don’t think of Albuquerque as a border town. But Dine (Navajo) Melaine Yazzie squarely defines the central New Mexico city as a classic one.
Surrounded not only by Native and trust lands, Albuquerque and its suburbs are built on an old indigenous land base that now hosts geopolitical and economic powerhouses such as Sandia National Laboratories, Kirtland Air Force Base and Intel Corporation.
“There’s the contradiction,” Yazzie told FNS. “Border towns are established on Native land but power and money is not with Native people.” Although more than 50,000 Native Americans reside in the Duke City, the indigenous community does not possess local political representation, Yazzie added.
Yazzie, who works with the new activist organization The Red Nation, spoke to FNS at the beginning of a vigil/memorial held in the Duke City this past weekend.
As thunder and lightning choreographed a graying summer sky that soon splashed city streets with priceless rain, Yazzie and dozens of others assembled on an East Central Avenue corner July 19 to protest violence against Native Americans and honor two Dine men, Allison “Cowboy” Gorman and Kee “Rabbit” Thompson, who were viciously beaten to death July 19 a year ago while they slept on an empty lot off Central Avenue.
Three teenagers, Alex Rios, Nathaniel Carrillo and Gilbert Tafoya, stand accused of a crime that shocked the city, the Navajo Nation and even the world.
“Cowboy and Rabbit: We Remember,” “Native Lives Matter” and “Stop Racist Violence against Natives” were among the messages on signs memorial participants waved at passing motorists on the Central Avenue main drag.
Grasping flowers and listening to prayers, the attendees included members of Thompson’s family, local residents and activists from The Red Nation, the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the anti-police brutality organization ABQ Justice and other groups.
Mourning over the loss of friends, one tearful Native woman broke into song for a few moments. “I want my friends back, but they’re not coming back,” she sobbed.
As at least three Albuquerque Police Department (APD) units monitored the gathering, tense moments developed when a beefy driver for Greg’s Towing attempted to haul away a car driven by KOB news reporter Stephanie Claytor that was parked on a property behind the memorial site where a Circle K convenience store and a McDonald’s do business.
A small crowd rallied and formed a wedge between the tow truck’s rear and Claytor’s car, “liberating” the vehicle from the creeping menace of a lowered truck ramp and allowing the reporter enough time to wiggle the vehicle out of its predicament. Arms folded, the hapless tow truck driver insisted that he must remove the vehicle, but was unable to act.
A transit cop appeared and barked at the crowd, “If you don’t want to get arrested, get off the property now!” “Boycott Circle K!” the crowd shot back.
But the real focus of the day was on victims of violence like “Cowboy” Gorman and “Rabbit” Thompson.
In a press release announcing the vigil/memorial, The Red Nation called on the public to take action: “This pattern of violence and racism can longer go unnoticed. Too many families have suffered. It must stop.”
In conversations with FNS both during and after the memorial, members of Thompson’s family shared memories of their loved one. Sister Veda Yazzie, aunt Louise Yazzie and nephew Ivan Yazzie described Thompson as a fun-loving, helpful and outgoing man who enjoyed basketball, cooking, traveling, playing cards and heavy metal music.
According to relatives, Thompson herded sheep in the summer and looked for construction jobs the remainder of the year. “He comes and goes and comes back,” said Louise Yazzie, who raised Thompson from the time her nephew’s mother died until he when he went out into the world after his 18th birthday.
Switching her words between English and Navajo, Yazzie said Thompson liked to help “the girls” bake cakes. He loved food, especially roast mutton, fried bread, tortillas, mild and hot chile, and “all kinds of stews,” she said.
The Yazzies are from Church Rock, New Mexico. Three days prior to July 19, the small Dine community not far from Gallup marked another grim anniversary. On July 16, 1979, the breach of a uranium mill tailings pond sent a river of contamination gushing down the Rio Puerco, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem and Dine lives.
Veda Yazzie spoke of her brother’s violent death in Albuquerque as an unimaginable event.
“It was devastating for me. I didn’t think we’d lose him that way. It was a shocker. I never imagined anyone dying like that, the way he did..,” Yazzie said. “I don’t think any human being should die like that.”
Ivan Yazzie said his uncle’s murder and the subsequent arrest of three teenagers for the crime shook his outlook to the core. “It made me lose hope in the judicial system and our country as a whole,” the young man said.
The Red Nation’s Melanie Yazzie said the murders of Cowboy and Rabbit helped inspire the formation of her group late last year. Co-founder Sam Gardipe placed the emergence of The Red Nation in the context of long struggles for survival.
“It was a government policy of extermination at one point and we aren’t supposed to be here. We’re supposed to be in a museum..”Gardipe said. “We’ve survived all of it. It’s the resilience, it’s the Native. We know how to survive, but it isn’t easy. The beauty of Native folk is that we can survive in our homeland.”
A Pawnee veteran of many struggles, Gardipe said The Red Nation unites older activists like himself with those from a new generation like Melanie Yazzie who are articulating both historic and contemporary concerns.
The Red Nation defines itself as a coalition “dedicated to building a widespread movement to liberate Indigenous peoples from colonialism.”
While not underrating the importance of environmental and sovereignty struggles, The Red Nation fills a void by focusing on urban Indian issues of violence, poverty, homelessness and health care, Yazzie said.
Seventy percent of Native Americans live off the reservation in urban centers like Albuquerque, she stressed.
The Native activist said the particular site of the July 19 anniversary memorial for Thomspon and Gorman was selected because it’s located in an impoverished part of the city where many Natives live.
As if no additional proof was needed of the conditions prevailing along East Central, a woman independently working from a truck off to a side of the memorial gave away free burritos to a steady file of people coming in from the streets to fill their stomachs.
The urgency of addressing the issues raised by The Red Nation and others was further reinforced only days before the memorial. KOB and other local news media reported this week that APD is searching for a purple SUV linked to a July 11 attack on a Native homeless man in southeast Albuquerque. The attackers tossed fireworks at the sleeping man, setting him on fire.
Quoted by KOB, APD spokesperson Tanner Tixier said the still publicly unidentified victim has spent more than two weeks in intensive care.
As one of its first actions, The Red Nation staged a February 2015 demonstration in Gallup that protested violence against the local Native community. According to Yazzie, The Red Nation has counted 170 “unnatural deaths” in Gallup between 2013 and April 2015 from causes that include murder, hypothermia, alcohol, and run-overs by trains and automobiles.
“I guarantee you, (the death toll) is higher now,” Yazzie added. “It seems that nobody cares.”
FNS asked Yazzie about anecdotal reports of Dine women being abducted on or near the Navajo Nation. “There is no reliable source for numbers,” Yazzie said. “I have heard plenty of stories of Native women being kidnapped in border towns like Gallup and trafficked into sex trafficking,” Yazzie said.
In a broad historical sense, The Red Nation’s border town protests weave a loop with the indigenous mass activism of the late 1960s and 1970s. “It has come full circle,” Gardipe observed. “The next generation wants to do something.”
As a 17 year-old, Gardipe said he marched during the times when organizations that included the National Indian Youth Council, the American Indian Movement, the Coalition for Navajo Liberation, and the UNM Kiva Club mobilized thousands for protests in Gallup, Farmington, Window Rock and Albuquerque.
The grievances ranged from the exploitation of Native crafts and culture in tourist-oriented Gallup to the beating deaths of Dine men by white teenagers in Farmington, New Mexico.
The Farmington atrocities attracted the attention of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, with an advisory committee to the Commission filing a landmark 1975 report after conducting an independent investigation and holding a field hearing.
Following a comprehensive examination of conditions facing the Farmington-area Native community, the advisory committee “concluded that Native Americans in almost every area suffer from injustice and maltreatment,” according to a University of Massachusetts summary of the report.
Forty years later, Gardipe assessed the earlier movement as having some positive but not enduring effects. “I think it got better for awhile, but it didn’t last,” Gardipe reflected. “I don’t know if the city officials didn’t care or if the people didn’t care.”
In a déjà vu of sorts, Gardipe said The Red Nation was contemplating upcoming actions that include a protest in Farmington, where more recent spates of violence against Native men recall previous years.
Members of Kee “Rabbit” Thompson’s family said they plan to monitor the trial of the three teens charged in a brutal murder. Thompson’s relatives expressed fears that the trio of alleged killers would get off the hook and not be held accountable for their actions.
“If they get away with it, they’re telling society, hey guys, you’re on your own, and it’s not just Natives,” sister Veda Yazzie said. Thompson’s sibling said life imprisonment justice would be fitting justice for the alleged killers of her brother. Urging parents to take responsibility for their young, Yazzie added that Thompson’s murder inflicted a pain that “doesn’t go away” or let her know when it will stop.
“It’s really hard,” she concluded. “At times I think, when is this nightmare going to end?”