Albuquerque has a complicated relationship with Native Americans. It’s a city where tourists and residents will watch what is deemed traditional Native American culture, such as dancing or feasts on neighboring reservations. But it’s also a place where, when I first moved into my studio, my lovely, incredibly kind neighbor whom I’d befriended told me that the only Native Americans she knew besides me were the ones she saw on reservations or the ones she saw on the street who were drunk and homeless. She said this without any malice whatsoever and despite the fact that we were sitting in a restaurant surrounded by Natives who were neither drunk, nor homeless.
It’s strange how some folks in Albuquerque see Natives in general, especially when you consider how many of us are not homeless, no more drunk than anyone else and not living on reservations.
As a novelist who writes about homeless Native people, it’s important to me to keep them visible. At the same time, it’s awful to see how single-faceted the perception of Natives in our town is.
A number of years ago, I took a cab ride with a man who once lived in Albuquerque. When I mentioned that I currently lived there, he began angrily listing all the times he had seen Natives drunk Downtown and how he thought the reason it was blocked off on the weekends was because of them. It was hard to understand his reasoning when there were so many other explanations.
What can be said about drunk, homeless Natives? Because we all know they exist, and they exist in a lot of places. One thing we can say is that they’re being beaten to death. Recently two homeless Navajo men who were quietly minding their own business were killed in Albuquerque by a couple of teenagers who have since been revealed to have attacked more than 50 homeless people. And the way these men were killed was utterly brutal. A third man thankfully got away, and the teenagers are standing trial. But this kind of thing is not a surprise when you consider that the commonplace feeling for Natives in Albuquerque is that they are drunk and homeless, and therefore a problem and a scapegoat.
My lovely, incredibly kind neighbor whom I’d befriended told me that the only Native Americans she knew besides me were the ones she saw on reservations or the ones she saw on the street who were drunk and homeless. She said this without any malice whatsoever and despite the fact that we were sitting in a restaurant surrounded by Natives who were neither drunk, nor homeless.
I asked Beverly Singer, a professor in Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, about this issue. Her frustration was similar to mine: “[Albuquerque] is surrounded by the Native Pueblo communities, but there’s little to no encounter or shared interests between non-Native residents of Albuquerque with Natives. ... What is so strange about Albuquerque is that it is a meeting place for numerous major Native American organizations such as IHS and NCAI and other forums. Then of course the city benefits enormously from the largest Powwow, Gathering of Nations, when over 30,000 Natives come to celebrate and fill up the UNM Pit Arena to dance and be together, as it brings in millions in revenue for the city. The average citizen of Albuquerque does not partake, and I think they act like it’s just an Indian thing.”
What I deeply love about Albuquerque is that because of the surrounding Pueblos, the not-so-distant Navajo reservation and because many Natives like myself have come here to do art of various kinds, there are many opportunities to interact with contemporary Native artists. I have encountered many non-Natives who are part of this scene, who appreciate and facilitate it, like Diahndra Grill, whose JustWrite program runs workshops in prisons for folks with an interest in poetry, including many Native American people. Or take, for example, Don McIver whose “Sunday Chatter” program ties music to the written word and has hosted many a Native writer including myself.
What troubles me is that outside the arts scene, some folks in Albuquerque continue to perceive that the “good” Natives, who do nice, recognizably Native things from a safe distance, are on the reservation, while the “bad” Natives are the ones living on the streets in the city, drinking. What’s missing from this perception are actual Natives, people who go out for a few glasses of wine with their friends or maybe have a quiet beer or two by their television after work; the ones working right by you in your office or construction site or laboring over their next novel or riding on the bus next to the tourist who is busily studying the brochure on Native American dancing and planning her trip to the nearest Pueblo. These people live on reservations, and they also live off of them.
Recently I took a trip to Santa Fe with another writer. It was bittersweet because I was leaving Albuquerque yet again, and this was a goodbye of sorts. My friend and I went on the Rail Runner. There was me, a mixed-Native person, a few Navajo people, Latinos, a couple of Pueblos and various other New Mexico residents all sitting together and mainly staring at our smartphones. The word multicultural is one I often find cheesy and inadequate. But it’s something that institutions, communities and often entire nations strive for. And would it hurt if Albuquerque and its residents worked a little harder toward it too? If folks were willing to say, you know, actually, you’re wrong, friend-
That day on the train, I thought a little bit about the city, about the violence that occurs there, about the beauty. And as we were speeding up toward Santa Fe, we stopped at one of the Pueblos, and the conductor asked for the passengers to please respect the people on the reservations. And I teared up because there is not one other place on Earth that I would hear this. Not one.