In summer 1974, Farmington was engulfed in racial justice protests after teenagers murdered three Navajo men.
This summer, with racial justice movements spreading across the nation, government officials and Navajo Nation advocates contemplated how far they’ve come on racial equity and what remains to be addressed.
“The racism that we see – as subtle as it may be today compared to 1974 – has been brewing for many, many years,” said Duane “Chili” Yazzie, a longtime Navajo community leader who marched in the 1974 protests.
In 1974, three Farmington High School students kidnapped, bludgeoned and murdered the Navajo men as part of a practice known as “Indian rolling,” in which white teenagers would assault Native individuals who were intoxicated and living homeless. The Navajo community responded with protests, bringing the civil rights movement to Farmington, according to reports issued in 1975 and in 2005 by the New Mexico Advisory Board to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The 1975 report called on elected officials to take responsibility. They needed to develop positive relationships with diverse communities and a mechanism to address discrimination complaints. The city needed more Native Americans in the police department, cultural awareness training and Navajo interpreters in municipal court.
The 2005 report noted progress in the city and San Juan County, but racist attitudes persisted. The board suggested establishing a human-relations commission, increasing city funding for the Farmington Indian Center, encouraging more Native-owned businesses and seeking Native American representation in policymaking positions.
In the 2005 report, Yazzie, then president of the Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation, said the community had moved from a grade of “D” to a “B minus” in race relations. Years later, and once again president of the chapter, Yazzie said that statement holds true.
“Most town folks are good people. The racism emanates from a very small minority, and they just make problems for everybody,” he said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “In general, the community’s awareness of racism has improved.”
Farmington and San Juan County have addressed some of the recommendations, but the Navajo advocates said officials have not addressed root causes of discriminatory practices.
Only so much progress can be made until people sit down and take a hard look at history, Yazzie said.
“The economic disparities and the effort to address alcoholism as being a cause are just very superficial efforts by the Anglo community,” he said. “It refuses to look at the root causes of those issues.”
The history that contributes to racial barriers goes back to 15th-century religious edicts from the Catholic Church to enslave or kill Indigenous people and a time when town folks were shooting Navajos for target practice, Yazzie said.
“The issues of racism and discrimination have been here for centuries,” he said.
Border towns around the Navajo reservation have had tense racial relations. Indigenous culture has been commodified and businesses have perpetuated harmful stereotypes about Native Americans. Border town history is intertwined with energy exploitation and land theft, said Janene Yazzie, a Diné human rights advocate and member of the Governor’s Council for Racial Justice. Janene Yazzie and Chili Yazzie are related within the Navajo clan system and are not immediate family.
“It’s that history that no one really wants to take accountability for,” she said. “That is the foundation for systemic inequality in our region.”
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted some of those border town tensions, said Hazel James, who is Diné and the San Juan Collaborative for Health Equity coordinator. In late spring, the Navajo Nation had some of the country’s highest coronavirus case numbers. People in border towns, such as Farmington, said they didn’t want Navajo individuals coming into town, she said.
“It’s just never going to change. That’s the way I feel,” James said.
Farmington and San Juan County officials are prioritizing relationship-building with the Navajo Nation, and their communities have made progress on the recommendations laid out in the federal reports.
“The Navajo Nation, they are such an important part of our community,” said Jack Fortner, San Juan County commissioner who recalled the events of 1974. “They are a crucial part of our economic viability, and more importantly, they’re an important part of our recovery from this COVID process.”
When asked how the county has improved, county officials focused on intergovernmental partnerships such as developing a railroad, waste transfer station operations and animal control services. Fortner also pointed to the fact that Native Americans hold high-level positions such as county commissioner, magistrate judge and human resources director.
Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett highlighted the creation of the Community Relations Commission in 2007, one of the report’s recommendations, and the Civility First Program, which helps businesses have positive relations with customers.
The Farmington Police Department tracks discrimination complaints, does safety trainings at Navajo schools and assists the Navajo Police Department with resources when needed, said Chief Steve Hebbe.
Fortner said the county would be interested in meeting with leaders of the Navajo Nation to discuss historical and root causes of discrimination. The city of Farmington shared that willingness.
“It’s important that we acknowledge and remember the history of our area, the atrocities committed against Native Americans and the pain and distrust those acts have caused,” Duckett said. “As mayor, I will continue to reach out to and work cooperatively with the Navajo Nation’s leaders to strengthen the relationship of our communities.”
During interviews with the Herald, government officials often pivoted back to their accomplishments when asked about ongoing racial equity issues their institutions could address.
The only ongoing trend Fortner mentioned is the “bad alcohol problem in San Juan County and the Navajo reservation.” All the officials highlighted alcoholism services, such as the sobering facility created in 2016, as action they have taken to support both Navajo communities and anyone who needs those facilities.
“Them talking about the sobering facility, that sounds like the stereotype that the problem is drunk Indians,” Janene Yazzie said, an easy way to villainize Indigenous people without addressing root causes.
Hebbe said the police department needs to focus on recruiting Native Americans – currently 6% of the sworn officers are Native American. Duckett focused almost entirely on the region’s current economic recession and partnering “hand-in-hand” with the Navajo Nation to address it.
“I think people every day have issues they can work on,” Duckett said. “The individual has to make that commitment. What the city of Farmington is doing is outwardly presenting the Civility First mentality.”
County Manager Mike Stark focused on providing economic opportunities for Navajo community members and gathering community input.
“We can’t improve our performance if we’re not aware of issues,” Stark said.
“If the county and the city truly wished to address the problem of racism, it would have to look at those historical facts,” Chili Yazzie said. “That’s the root of this problem here.”