A local man who recently returned to New Mexico to serve as a doctor on Kewa Pueblo died early Saturday in a rock climbing accident in the Sandia Mountains.
Dr. Garon Coriz, 33, was an avid rock climber who scaled peaks around the world and was an outspoken Indian rights advocate for causes, including the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
“He meant the world to me,” said his father, Scott E. Borg, a lawyer specializing in Indian law and medical malpractice. “He had tons of friends and touched a lot of people’s lives.”
His body was returned to the pueblo on Monday, where he was a tribal member. A traditional burial was immediately performed.
After several years in Utah, Coriz – who grew up in Albuquerque and Kewa Pueblo, formerly called Santo Domingo Pueblo – recently returned home and was planning to work at a clinic on the pueblo.
Borg said his son spent one summer in Ecuador and another in Peru, providing medical care to indigenous people in the Andes. He protested attempts to cut the size of Bears Ears National Monument and pushed to protect the land’s sacred uses to Native Americans, maintain public access, and restrict mining and fracking.
“That cause was foremost to him, partly because my grandparents were from that area and Garon learned to love southeast Utah,” Borg said. “He did a lot of presentations on Bears Ears and other environmental issues.”
In addition to his father, Coriz is survived by his mother, Nora Coriz; a brother, Dion Coriz; and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces and friends.
A memorial service will be held for him Saturday at Sandia Crest. The exact time and location will be announced later.
Borg, who acknowledged his own fear of heights, said he often feared his son might experience some catastrophe while climbing.
“He was a very skillful climber, and we don’t know how this happened, but we were told he made no mistakes, so it could have been an equipment failure.”
His son, he learned, was climbing in a remote part of the Sandia Mountains with a friend Saturday morning when the accident occurred.
“He was 4 feet from the top when he fell about 160 feet,” Borg said. The area was so remote it took from 10:30 a.m. Saturday until 4:30 p.m. Sunday to recover his body, he said.
Whenever Coriz had the opportunity, he spent time in the mountains, hiking and climbing. He climbed in Nepal, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, Italy and Austria.
During his adventures, a longtime friend said he had a way of bringing people together.
“He had an unusually high degree of empathy. You could really be yourself around him. He was almost completely lacking in judgmentalism,” said Jay Reidy, a friend of Coriz’s dating to the sixth grade at Albuquerque Academy. “He had a unique ability to make people not feel judged and that allowed him to bring people together.”
Reidy was texting back and forth with Coriz last week. The two friends were planning a trip to Colorado to try to summit some 14,000-foot peaks later this summer. Though tragic, a death in the mountains was in some ways fitting for his friend, Reidy said.
“Part of me in a weird way is glad he died doing what he loved, which was climbing,” Reidy said. “There is no fitting way for a sudden or tragic death, but I think it’s one of the more meaningful ways for him to experience leaving this world.”
Newspaper clippings and online videos show that Coriz was a tenacious advocate for causes he believed in. He wrote letters to newspapers and appeared in recorded interviews about Bears Ears National Monument, arguing to keep the size of the monument unchanged.
Coriz wrote to The Salt Lake Tribune in May 2018 arguing for medical cannabis as a potential treatment option for opioid addiction. In the letter, he spoke of his patients in rural Utah, where he worked as a physician, struggling with the disease.
The Utah County Democratic Party announced Coriz’s death on Sunday. The group said that Coriz was a former chairman of the Sevier County Democratic Party.
“Garon was a Santo Domingo Pueblo member and family physician who worked hard to make the world a better place,” the group wrote on its Facebook page.
Kathie Allen, a doctor and Democratic candidate for office in Utah, noted Coriz’s death on her Twitter account early Monday.
“We have lost the voice of a Native American who was compassionate, articulate, and a family physician who advocated for his patients, most of whom were disadvantaged,” Allen wrote.
A few years ago, Coriz, writing on the blog of the Family Medicine Residency Program at the University of Utah, recounted the trials and the beauty of growing up as a mixed-race child to a Native American mother and a white father – spending time on both the Pueblo of Santo Domingo and in the urban sprawl of Albuquerque.
Children on the pueblo teased and called him “white buffalo,” while schoolchildren in Albuquerque “fabricated tales to get me in trouble; my word was tossed aside.”
Luckily, Coriz wrote, the love of pueblo family members helped protect him when he lived with his mother; and a “brilliant Caucasian attorney for a father” got him through the tough times in Albuquerque.
Coriz went on to become a star basketball player at Albuquerque Academy before going to Reed College in Oregon and medical school at the University of New Mexico. He worked as a family practice and emergency room doctor in Utah, was a dedicated conservationist, an Indian rights advocate and an accomplished landscape painter, in addition to being an avid rock climber.
“Finding a balance between my tribal culture and the dominating world culture continues to be a bear I must wrestle daily,” he wrote.