In the wake of the beating deaths of two tribal members in a field on Albuquerque’s West Side last month, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly traveled to Albuquerque to get some answers.
He called for the FBI to investigate the killings to determine if the homeless men were singled out because they were Native American and he met with Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry to talk about how their two governments can do a better job of offering help and protection to homeless Navajos.
Shelly also spent time at the Albuquerque Indian Center, a social service center for urban Indians and a way station for men like Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, the men beaten to death while they slept in a vacant lot, who find themselves unmoored by poverty, homelessness and alcohol and far from home.
In his talk there, Shelly reminded everyone that Gorman and Thompson were “five-fingered ones.”
During the decades I covered the Navajo Nation, I often heard that expression – “five-fingered ones” – to describe human beings and I always appreciated its descriptive eloquence. It’s a graceful way of saying, no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all part of the same human family.
As a city family, Albuquerque has a responsibility to do everything it can to keep everyone safe – regardless of whether they’re tucked safely in a home in Four Hills or asleep in a field. And as a tribal family, the Navajo Nation has a responsibility to do everything it can to keep its people healthy and whole everywhere they live – not just on the reservation home.
There was nothing about the deaths of Gorman and Thompson that wasn’t utterly awful.
Two men, with families who loved them, were reduced to sleeping on discarded mattresses in a vacant lot. They were homeless and had been drinking on the night they were beaten so savagely that their faces were unrecognizable.
Three teenagers – ages 15, 16 and 18 – are charged in the murders. One of the boys told police beating up homeless men was a pastime – he’d done it 50 or so times.
Gorman and Thompson had sunk into a particularly dangerous way of life. Among Albuquerque’s homeless, Native Americans live on the streets longer, are hospitalized more frequently and report being attacked more often.
Homelessness, poverty, alcohol abuse and violent crimes aren’t news to the Navajo Nation. But the savage deaths of two of their own, defenseless and away from home, was a reminder that tribal ties don’t end at reservation boundaries.
“It’s like a slap in the face,” Rick Abasta, the tribal spokesman, told me. “And a wake-up call that we’ve got to do something to help these folks. It just opened everybody’s eyes.”
The trick, of course, is what to do when once your eyes are opened.
“We’re very good at talking about it,” Larry Curley, the director of the tribe’s Division of Health, told me when I phoned him to ask him what the tribe is doing to take care of men like Gorman and Thompson on its end, before they wind up sleeping in vacant lots in Albuquerque.
He said his department is rethinking its approach to programming to combat alcoholism and homelessness because what it’s been doing is not working.
For years, the tribe and the Indian Health Service put a lot of their alcohol treatment money into the Na’nizhoozhi Center, the nonprofit detox and alcohol treatment facility in Gallup that took in drunk people off the streets, held them in a safe, sober environment for 72 hours and also offered alcohol treatment programs.
Last year, NCI closed briefly after the Navajo Nation directed that the Indian Health Service money earmarked for the center go to other alcohol treatment initiatives in other border towns. The center reopened under a new name – Gallup Detox – and under the management of the Navajo Nation’s Behavioral Health Department. The tribe has come under sharp criticism for changes there – shorter holds, cold sandwiches instead of hot meals and no long-term treatment.
But Curley, who was a board member 20 years ago when the center opened, said the tribe is no longer willing to put most of its treatment money into one center in one border town when problems exist all over and all around the reservation.
“It did a good job,” Curley said. “But this doesn’t only happen in Gallup. It happens in Winslow, Holbrook, Flagstaff, Farmington and now in Albuquerque.”
The tribe has launched a Border Town Initiative that frees up tribal funds for detox and treatment programs in border towns other than Gallup. Curley said he also worried that over time the Gallup center had become a crutch.
“You come into town from (the reservation), you know you can drink and then a public service aide will pick you up and take you in and you’ll have a safe, warm bed and hot meals for three days,” Curley said.
Surveys have found that many inebriates in Gallup are military veterans who come from the interior of the large Navajo reservation. Curley said the tribe is launching a pilot program to provide a 15-20 bed transitional living home for homeless and alcoholic veterans near Tsaile, Ariz. If it works, the tribe will find five others in other parts of the reservation.
“It brings them back to the reservation to provide relief for the border communities and also for us to take responsibility for the issue,” Curley said. “We as a nation have a certain level of responsibility to our people. We have a responsibility to offer every tribal member the opportunity to be self-sustaining and self-reliant. We all have a joint responsibility to our brothers.”
On the Navajo Nation, Curley acknowledged there’s plenty of work to do to meet that goal. In Albuquerque, we’ve got our own work to do to change a culture of violence against the homeless. As we both go forward, it will help to speak of one another as family members.