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Farmington Struggles With Civil Rights Issues

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    FARMINGTON— Twelve hours of testimony Friday about the status of racial discrimination in this Four Corners town produced some unflattering numbers.
    Nearly every one of the dozens of people who testified said there has been improvement here. The city has made strides, for instance, in bringing Indian people into city government, with Indians now holding 18 percent of city jobs. But dark statistics still emerged.
    Evidence presented to the New Mexico Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights included:
  • Hundreds of legal complaints from Navajos who say they have been ripped off by unscrupulous merchants; tricked into signing car loans they're unable to pay; and charged higher interest rates than non-Indians;
  • 80 percent of all DWI arrests involve Indian men and women in Farmington, despite an Indian population of about 17 percent;
  • Interest rates as high as 50 percent on short-term pawn shop loans.
  • Two Indian-owned businesses out of about 800 members of the regional Better Business Bureau;
  • Thirteen Indian police officers among the 185 in all of San Juan County;
  • Not one Native American prosecutor in the county.
        It has been 30 years since Farmington gained notoriety as a hostile border town where merchants were rude to Indian customers, where government was nearly all Anglo and where Anglo youths harassed and attacked poor and homeless Indian men for fun.
        After Anglo teens killed and mutilated three intoxicated Navajo men in 1974, exposing a practice of attacking Indian men for sport that they called "Indian rolling," Navajos' smoldering discontent reputed into protests and marches.
        The Commission on Civil Rights investigated, and its 1975 report, "A Conflict of Cultures," painted a picture of a community where Native Americans were not welcome, except to spend money.
        As part of an investigation into current conditions in towns that border Indian reservations, the commission's Rocky Mountain Regional Office decided to return to Farmington and take another look.
        John Dulles, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office, convened the daylong meeting at San Juan College, and 10 of the 14 members of the commission's New Mexico Advisory Committee listened as Navajo elected leaders, Farmington and San Juan County officials, police chiefs, business owners and school officials described how things have changed.
        While there was testimony about improvement, the past was heavily recalled.
        Sen. Leonard Tsosie, D-Crownpoint, began his comments by asking for a moment of silence for Herman Dodge Benally, John Earl Harvey and David Ignacio, the three Navajos whose 1974 slayings brought the civil rights commission to town.
        "They gave their lives for civil rights," he said.
        Levon Henry, the executive director of DNA, the non-profit law firm that represents Navajos, said New Mexico's lack of caps on interest rates leaves Navajos vulnerable to unscrupulous business people.
        He said some mobile home and auto dealers charge Navajos as high an interest rate as they can, often taking advantage of elderly or uneducated people who don't understand what they're signing.
        "The blatant discrimination of the past may not be as obvious," Henry said, "but it remains alive among unscrupulous mobile home dealers, car dealers, pawn shops and payday loan companies."
        Joyce Donald, president of the region's Better Business Bureau, said she has watched Navajo consumers become more sophisticated and area businessmen become more respectful in their dealings with Indian customers, although complaints are still frequent.
        The Farmington Chamber of Commerce is launching a cultural sensitivity training program for business owners and their employees.
        Steve Melloy, general manager of Advantage Dodge in Farmington, said Navajos should shop around until they find a car dealer that treats them with respect.
        Recent rumors that Indian rolling was being revived among Farmington youths were quickly investigated by a police task force. Police found that the assaults were occurring among Indian street people involved in drunken arguments.
        Duane "Chili" Yazzie, the president of the Shiprock Chapter, said he remembers taking part in the 1974 protests.
        "I stand before you today with my report card that reads Farmington, which was dubbed 'the Selma, Alabama, of the Southwest' in 1974, has come from a grade of a D to a B- in race relations."