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Weekly Alibi Death and Detox in Indian Country

By Steve Devitt

AUGUST 16, 1999:  Everything is different when you cross the line into Indian Country. Not "mystical," perhaps not even "genuine" as the Gallup Chamber of Commerce would have you believe, but different.

Native Americans have had a public relations problem since 1493, when Columbus returned to Spain and told artists about them. For the next 200 years, paintings and drawings of "Indians" who looked strangely European were accepted as reflections of reality.

Today many "mainstream" media reports and portrayals don't do much better. Reporters rarely recognize the solid connection between the alcoholism rate on the Indian reservations and economic despair. The average per capita income on Montana's Crow Reservation in 1989 was less than $7,000, and tribal officials at that time estimated the alcoholism rate at 90 percent among those tribal members over the age of 15. Since then a new tribal administration has increased tribal employment to the point that it now represents an annual payroll of $10 million.

As a result, the alcoholism rate, as well as the numbers of people killed in alcohol-related accidents, has decreased substantially. The statistics for the Crow in 1989, by the way, are very close to the statistics for the Navajo Nation in 1999. Of course, it's a lot easier to say simply that Indians can't handle liquor. Then nobody has to do anything about the economics that drive them to it.

The Native Americans you will read about in the accounts that follow are not from Gallup's billboards. They are real people, with real families who experience real pain. The connection between alcohol and violence in Indian Country can be seen in two places: Gallup, N.M., and Window Rock, Ariz. The following two accounts provide a window into this serious dilemma and, possibly, a different, more viable direction for the future.

There are, of course, obvious strengths exercised by many Navajo and other Native Americans, such as the extended family, the allegiance to the land and the spiritual connections in their philosophy. In those strengths are found their greatest hope. For the rest of us, we have to stop looking at Gallup's billboards and start recognizing the real problems in Indian Country.


PART I: GALLUP, N.M.

GALLUP, N.M. -- Every weekend, 40,000 to 60,000 Native Americans converge on this high desert community. By Friday at 4 p.m., Route 666, the thoroughfare that leads to Gallup's Rio West Mall and the new super Wal-Mart, looks like a California freeway at rush hour. Most of these people come to shop -- indeed, they have made McKinley County the third-largest generator of sales tax in the state of New Mexico and 200 of the town's 20,000 residents millionaires.

But some of them come to die.

In 1998, according the New Mexico Office of Medical Inspection, there were 11 homicides in McKinley County. So far this year there have been six, including two people shot to death by law enforcement officers. All but two of the dead were Navajo. And all of them died out of doors.

Not all of the carnage is officially labeled as homicide. The Burlington Santa Fe Railroad runs parallel to old Route 66 through town, and along its tracks are open areas where people, many of them Native Americans, gather and drink. In the past two years, 16 of them have been killed in train-pedestrian accidents. Some cops believe several of those people were murdered, placed on the tracks by disgruntled drinking companions.

Gallup is a community divided by geography: hills and arroyos separate well-appointed residential districts and provide meeting places for inebriates to share cheap wine. These people do not always get along. Last year there were roughly 300 robberies in Gallup, and more than 70 percent of them did not involve the use of weapons. They were "strong arm" robberies: "Give me your money, or I will beat you to death."

Last fall, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) told the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs that the homicide rate in Indian Country (that portion of the United States controlled by Indian tribes) had risen 87 percent while the murder rate for the rest of the United States had decreased by 22 percent. And in February, the Department of Justice issued an eye-opening report gleaned from five years of statistics on violence in Indian communities, both on and off reservations. More than 500 Native Americans are murdered every year, and they comprise the ethnic group most likely to be murdered by a member of a different ethnic group.

That's not the case in Gallup, or anywhere in Navajo country. Police officers and prosecutors on both sides of the reservation line say the deaths are all related to alcohol, and victims and perpetrators alike are Navajo. But for Gallup, a community that has grandfathered in about twice the number of bars allowed in other towns of similar size in New Mexico, the liquor business is too lucrative to give up. On the reservation, taxes on legalized liquor sales could establish much-needed treatment centers and provide additional law enforcement services, but the idea is unacceptable to traditional Navajos.

Small wonder. The Navajo, whether they drink or not, know that booze has killed more Indians than John Wayne. Alcohol-created arguments often end in violence employing "weapons of convenience," most commonly rocks or cement blocks. "The weapons are often Neolithic," said McKinley County District Attorney Forrest Buffington, "weapons of opportunity. Cement blocks are used at least as much as knives."

In one case last year, a man was arrested for crushing a woman's head with a block of cement and killing her. His story was the woman was part of a group of people who beat and robbed him, and the story worked. He was not convicted of the killing. Homicide is often a hard crime to prosecute in McKinley County. Many times there are no witnesses. Other times, the witnesses are too intoxicated to provide reliable testimony, or even remember what happened.

In the fall of 1997, an Indian man was stabbed to death outside the motel room in Gallup that he was sharing with his wife. The night of his death, the woman told police her husband only went outside to tell two young Navajo men to be quiet. Subsequently, it was proven that he went out with a steel pipe in his hands, and that he had been arrested several times for assault. A month after the incident, his wife told social workers, "He's not a bad guy when he's not drinking."

He died about 11 p.m. and reportedly had been drinking since 10 a.m. His wife, who had been drinking with him, told police one story the night of her husband's death, another a month later, and contradicted herself constantly on the stand during the trial. His assailants were acquitted.

Jurisdiction is also troublesome. Major crimes on Indian land are handled by the federal government rather than local authorities. "You go four miles from here," Buffington said, gesturing around his office in downtown Gallup, "and you will be crossing in and out of Indian Country. Even pursuit is dangerous."

Jurisdiction can slow justice. Two years ago, a Navajo man walked into the Gallup police department and confessed to shooting his wife. While he was making his confession, his wife bled to death in his pick-up outside. The case took months to get to court because the police could not determine where he had shot his wife -- on or off the reservation.

Despite the solid numbers involving Navajo violence, the population affected is a small fraction of the local Navajo population. In past years, Gallup police officers referred to the "100" -- known drunks who were picked up, sometimes several times a week, and jailed for public intoxication and other charges.

Five years ago, the county, city and tribe established a detox center and public safety patrols. If somebody passes out on the streets of Gallup, he or she is picked up within 15 minutes and taken to the center where they are detoxed and given the option of long-term treatment. While the Gallup Chamber of Commerce has touted the program as solving the city's alcohol problem, Buffington isn't sure how much of it is really effective and how much is cosmetic. He said he had never heard of the infamous "100," but he did know that the role of victim and perpetrator was easily reversed.

"We constantly arrest people who have been victims in four or five assault cases," he said, "and those same people have generally been suspects in four or five cases."

During the past two years, Buffington has been criticized for a number of plea bargains in which charges stemming from cases involving violent deaths have been reduced to involuntary manslaughter. Most of the time, he said, it would have been impossible to successfully prosecute them as homicide cases.

It's very difficult to get a verdict that is "beyond a reasonable doubt" when there are no witnesses or the witnesses were so inebriated at the time that they contradict their own testimony on the stand. But he does try to bring the cases to court.

"The most cynical thing a person could do," he said, "is not to prosecute these people at all, because their lifestyle is a death sentence."


PART II: WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ.

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. -- Don't try to tell Navajo Police Chief Leonard Butler the murder rate on the Navajo Nation has anything to do with the traditional "Warrior Way."

People kill each other because they get drunk, he will tell you. They do it with guns and knives, rocks, their bare hands and with vehicles. He and the 300 officers who work for him get to clean it up, day after day, year after year.

During 1998, the Navajo Police Department saw a marked decrease in homicides on the reservation, only 33 for the entire year, as opposed to 57 for 1997. Some observers attribute that to the massive efforts by the NPD to address the problems of gang-related violence. Butler agreed that that may have had something to do with it. "We've made a substantial effort for the last eight to 10 years concerning gangs," he said. On that particular issue, he said, "we recognized we had a problem."

Alcohol abuse breeds denial as quickly in Indian Country as anywhere else, but with a few cultural twists. There is no such thing as a "closet alcoholic" in Indian Country, and drinking is something that is most often done in groups. Public reaction to alcohol-related crimes or accidents tends to reach what Butler called "crisis points," as when six people died in a single accident in April after they visited a bootlegger in Chinle, Ariz. The accident occurred just before the spring session of the Navajo Nation Council. Council members demanded that Butler appear before them and explain what his department was doing about bootlegging.

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Butler's department had made a number of arrests -- but to little avail. The Navajo tribe can only prosecute misdemeanors, and federal officials have been reluctant to handle bootlegging cases. A bootlegger can expect to be fined $500. Considering the profits in selling a pick-up full of beer at $8 to $10 per six pack, along with some dollar pints of cheap wine that fetch $5 each, the fines don't mean much. Bootleggers don't have to worry about the six-month jail sentence. There are only 200 jail cells on the reservation. Those cells are not up to federal standards, Butler said, and are needed for violent offenders.

There are enough of those to go around. Butler estimated that there have been about 30 homicides on the Navajo Nation so far this year. "We deal with [violence] almost on a daily basis," he said. Butler, who has served 23 years on the NPD and four years as its chief, is a strong proponent of treatment, rather than incarceration, for Navajos who break the tribe's anti-liquor laws. He told the council it should consider legalizing alcohol to create the necessary revenues to augment law enforcement and fund treatment centers.

At the spring session, delegate after delegate bemoaned the fact that the council has talked about the bootlegging issue for years without taking action. "What those people don't realize," Butler said, "is the role they are playing. If the problem is going to be addressed, then the whole Navajo Nation has to be involved."

When something bad happens because of alcohol, such as the accident in Chinle or a particularly gruesome murder, people react. They have marches to Window Rock and demand action from the council. But the interest is short-lived. He and his officers don't forget it, however, "because we're the ones out there picking up bodies and telling the next of kin."

Butler estimated that 90 percent of the calls the NPD gets are alcohol-related. Like other law enforcement officers in neighboring communities who deal with Navajo-on-Navajo violence, he cannot remember a murder case that was not. According to a recent study by the Center for Disease Control, Navajos begin to drink early: The median age of first intake is nine. Economics on the reservation, where the average per capita income is about $7,000 and the unemployment rate is estimated at 42 percent, feed the fuel of despair.

Nobody who deals with violence within the Navajo Nation can tell you what comes first, but they do know that economics and addiction feed on each other. Alcohol is the drug of choice in the Nation and, like any drug, promises financial gain for those who market it. Many Navajos are cynical about tribal efforts to crack down on bootlegging. "All they want to do is fine these people to get the money," said one tribal member after listening to a task force discussion for creating higher fines for bootleggers, including $1,000 "donations" for treatments centers. "They want to get the money, but what are they going to do with it? They aren't doing anything to help the people, and they want to hurt the people who are helping themselves."

The people who are "helping themselves" in this instance represent a tangible threat to the young people on the reservation. More than 3,500 young Navajos enter the labor pool on the reservation every year, according to the Navajo Division of Economic Development. If they have job skills or political connections, they may become part of the tribe's 6,000 member work force. If not, they may become more susceptible to the predations of bootleggers. Like other drug dealers, bootleggers don't ask for ID.

Most Navajo youth find it extremely difficult to leave the reservation. Unlike other Americans, they are taught an allegiance to the land that is palpable. This land, they will tell you, is where the Navajo are supposed to be, and once they leave it, they become disconnected to their greatest source of strength.

Many Navajos, including Navajo Police Chief Butler, believe that Navajo salvation from booze will have to come by teaming modern treatment for alcoholism with traditional healing. But it will have to be mandatory and enforced. For obvious reasons, Navajo police are not above looking the other way when dealing with intoxication. Two years ago, an enraged husband starting drinking and driving around the Arizona side of the reservation, looking for his absent wife. Police stopped him twice within 24 hours. During the first stop, they took away his guns. The second time, they took him to a detox center. The man walked in the front door of the center and out the back, then across the street where he borrowed a vehicle from a relative, and a deer rifle. Less than five hours later, he used the weapon to shoot his wife to death in front of their five-year-old son.

Butler, himself a recovering alcoholic, recently asked the council, "Where are our treatment centers?" He went through treatment at an off-reservation treatment center. "It was rough. Those people did not think like me, and I did not think like them." Butler, who also said he understood from first-hand experience what it was like "to need a drink at 3 in the morning," has a gut-level understanding of alcohol addiction. But his financially-strapped department can't begin to address the problem. And the federal government, which has what is known as a trust responsibility to the Navajo people, seems unwilling to address what is acknowledged as their basic underlying malady. Butler noted the federal government's ongoing multi-million dollar investment in preventing diabetes in Indian Country, but also observed that the impact of alcohol consumption is rarely mentioned as a contributing factor. "But you have to realize," Butler said, "diabetes is a respectable disease."


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