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Farmington struggles to move forward on human rights initiative after hate crime
In the wake of a brutal incident in which a young mentally challenged Navajo man was branded with a swastika symbol, officials in Farmington have been asked to sign an agreement, prepared by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, that would serve as a guide for improving race relations. But some officials are balking at sections of the document referring to a history of oppression of Navajos.
Both the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the Farmington Community Relations Committee were formed in the wake of violence directed against Navajos in Farmington in 2006. The agreement prepared by the Navajo commission followed, after a series of listening sessions held on race relations in border towns. During the sessions, commission members came to realize more work was needed to improve race relations, Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission Executive Director Leonard Gorman said in an interview with The Independent.
“It’s absolutely good to talk, but as usual conversations end with just that,” he said. “A formal arrangement is needed to help with developing strategies.”
The agreement calls for regular meetings and reciprocity, with both the city and the Navajo Nation proactively working to improve coordination and cooperation to improve race relations.
The commission sent a letter last year asking officials in Albuquerque and Phoenix, plus 13 “border towns” that ring the Navajo Nation, to sign the agreement. Albuquerque officials were the most responsive, Gorman said, although it has yet to sign the agreement. Between now and then the city got a new mayor, which may have slowed the process.
Since then, due to the “ongoing issue” with Farmington and a series of beatings that happened in Grants last summer, the commission decided to focus in on those three New Mexico cities.
Farmington mayor removed two paragraphs from the agreement
The city of Grants signed the agreement last month. But the mayor of Farmington, Tommy Roberts, removed these two paragraphs of the document before forwarding it to his city’s community relations committee last week:
The civil, political, social, cultural and economic history between the United States and the Navajo people and other indigenous peoples is significant, complex and tragic. During the colonial and independent periods, long series of ethno-national conflicts were waged with the primary objective of obtaining the indigenous peoples’ agricultural and mineral resources. Through wars, genocide, forced displacement and the imposition of treaties, land was taken and numerous hardships imposed. Although the federal, state and local governments within the United States now toil to protect the rights of all peoples, indigenous peoples as well as other minorities have needlessly suffered from discrimination.
We must never forget the tragedies inflicted against the Navajo people and other indigenous peoples within the United States individually and collectively and ensure their story is acknowledged and told in their words. Together the COMMISSION and the CITY intend to move forward by acknowledging that racism and other destructive actions were inflicted upon the Navajo and other indigenous peoples and other minorities and this racism continues in America to this day. Those actions and ideas must be eliminated now and forever at every level of government and eventually in the hearts and minds of all peoples.
Reciting history of oppression hinders ability to move forward, mayor says
Roberts is a new mayor, taking office in early March. One of the first things waiting on his desk when he arrived was the agreement, he told The Independent.
“I was immediately struck by what I perceived as negative overtones as a result of the brief discussion [in the document] of the history of atrocities committed against Native Americans and Navajos in particular,” he said.
Roberts said he doesn’t think a recitation of the historical treatment of Navajos would help set a positive tone for moving forward, and that it would be better to focus on the progress that Farmington has made.
He also said Farmington doesn’t have more problems with race relations than other cities. Instead, he said, the brutal murder of three Navajo men that led to a boycott of the city by Navajos in the 1970s “marked” the city as being racially intolerant, but the reality is that Farmington has had just a few specific incidents since then in a larger context of generally positive relations between Navajo and non-Navajo people.
“Every day we have thousands of interactions between people of different cultures, and most if not all are positive in nature,” he said. “Certainly there are incidents of egregious violations of human rights, but those are rare and will become more rare. …I think its very hard to overcome perception. But if you talked to Navajo leaders they would have positive things to say about evolution of race relationships in Farmington.”
If the preamble of the agreement does recite the history of oppression, it needs to be balanced with acknowledgment of the progress made since the 1970s in Farmington, he continued.
“I think history is all inclusive,” he said. “We can’t pick and choose what part of history we’re going to recite.”
For Navajo leaders, acknowledging history is essential
But acknowledging Native Americans’ history and experiences is essential, Gorman said, and the passages in the document are important. People not only need to be reminded, they need to acknowledge the past to ensure that it won’t be repeated, he said.
“Countries all over the world include such history in international agreements,” he said. “The preamble to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples talks about the history, in which indigenous people were the most taken advantage of in the colonial era, and then points out why that happened. The United State’s own Declaration of Independence is similar, it talks about why [independence is necessary].”
Gorman said the need to include the history doesn’t necessarily preclude acknowledging the positives of Farmington’s history as well. On the question of whether or not Farmington is more intolerant than other border towns, Gorman said he simply didn’t know at this point.There are a lot of anecdotal stories from Navajo people, he said, plus his office has been hearing from non-Navajo people as well.
“It’s interesting how people share with my office,” he said. “Some things seem very egregious, the way people talk about them. The Navajo Nation’s hope and desire through the inception of this office is that these matters will be appropriately addressed.”