Friday, February 19, 2016

More on the Crisis in the Cold: The deep history of Navajo drinking in Gallup

This is part 3 of a series.   There will be a few more parts.

Street Level Conflict, Part 1: Alcohol Use in Gallup
            The alcohol question vexed relations between Navajos and Gallup residents more than any other.[1]  Some folks in Gallup were quick to point out that although Gallup had a population of only 17,000, its trade area comprised mostly dry reservation and Mormon towns that included 80,000 people and thus the alcohol situation appeared worse than it was because all the drinking for the entire trade area had to take place in Gallup. But this justification could not replace what was clearly evident on the city streets. New Yorker columnist Calvin Trillin wrote in his column that "Gallup is noted for drunken Indians."[2]  As Trillin pointed out, Navajo drinking and its effects were far more visible compared to similar activity by other groups.  Indeed, authorities in Gallup estimated that the "problem drinkers" constituted a small minority of Navajos drinking in Gallup.  Of the eight or nine thousand Navajos arrested every year, Police Chief Manuel Gonzalez estimated that most were accounted for by the same 400 to 450 people who were arrested twice a month.[3]  
As I have already pointed out in Chapter 2, the alcoholism rates for rural Anglos and Navajos have been, by most measurable indicators, roughly equal.  What astounded visitors to Gallup was not so much the quantity of alcohol Navajos consumed but the style and manner in which Navajos drank.  Navajos drank in groups, often outside liquor stores.[4]   An encounter between Anglo historian Terry Lee Carroll and his Navajo informant Joe Miller reveals how Anglo and Navajo drinking styles differed.  Miller took Carroll to several  Navajo-patronized bars in Gallup in the late 1968.  He explained the Navajo drinking ethic to Carroll. "[I]f a man doesn't chase women and drink, he's a fool," Joe told Carroll.  "Are you a fool?" Miller asked.  Carroll, a Baptist, admitted to drinking an occasional beer but claimed that, as a married man, he did not chase women.  "Fool, fool," responded Miller.  After the exchange, Miller repeatedly called Carroll only by the new name.[5]
 The exchange highlighted some of the major differences among the various cultural constructions of alcohol use and the way such constructions shaped larger debates.  Anglo, Hispano, and Navajo uranium miners in Grants would have recognized Miller's criteria for manhood immediately.  Drinking beer and chasing women -- or at least acting as voyeurs during strip shows -- were activities central to the miners' sense of community.  In the bars of Grants, a man like Miller was a good fit.  But Miller was not an Anglo or Hispano miner in Grants, he was a Navajo man drinking in Gallup.  In Grants, the leisure activity of drinking was so closely related to work that socializing in bars and holding one's liquor was considered an essential aspect of being a good miner.  When a man drank in a bar in Grants, he was almost guaranteed to be identified as a miner blowing off steam after a hard day's work.  However, when a Navajo man engaged in the same activities in Gallup, observers labeled him a drunk and a degenerate.  A Navajo uranium miner could engage in the same behavior in two different settings a mere sixty miles apart and either be held up as an example of Native American assimilation and progress in the United States, or reviled as the dregs of a dying race.      
Like the drinking patterns of the multi-racial miner community, Navajo alcohol consumption in the 1960s and 1970s was a heavily gendered affair.  Among Navajo men, alcohol consumption was an activity for the young.  Men in their twenties and thirties gathered in groups to engage in bouts of binge drinking.  While such behavior was scarce before the rise of the cash economy, new sources of wage income combined with the increased availability of alcohol in border towns like Gallup led to more frequent and more public bouts of group drinking.  Anglos would have considered such behavior alcoholic.  But Navajos saw the issue differently.  Most Navajo men stopped participating in these group binges by the time they reached their middle thirties to early forties.  In the Navajo view, only men who drank alone were considered problem drinkers.[6]
Among Navajo women, alcohol consumption was rare in the 1960s and 1970s.  Women may have consumed less alcohol because of the gendered division of labor.  Men began to earn cash at wage jobs while women continued to earn money primarily through agriculture and stockraising.  However, those Navajo women who did drink were much more likely than men to drink alone.  Further, the results of their drinking were likely to be, as the foremost scholars of Navajo drinking described it,  "disastrous."  Navajo women who drank were far more likely to experience problems because of their alcohol use ranging from being labeled deviant to becoming victims of sexual exploitation.[7] 
There were other factors that compounded the liquor issue in Gallup.  Navajos lack of mobility contributed to the alcohol problem.  Despite increased vehicle ownership on the reservation, Navajos still depended on a culture of reciprocity to get around.  While there are no studies that cover vehicle ownership over the whole of the reservation, during 1965-66 Louise Lamphere collected relevant data for the "Copper Canyon" community which was located well within Gallup's trade area.   She found that roughly over half the extended residence groups in the community had access to a pick-up or car, but only 34 percent of households actually owned one.  However, even in those households that owned a pick-up or car, the vehicle might be temporarily unavailable because it needed maintenance, had been repossessed, or had been wrecked.[8]   This led to a complicated culture of ride arrangement.  Although Lamphere listed hitch-hiking as only the fourth preferred mode of procuring a ride (among five listed options),   it was popular enough that Eric Treisman found himself frequently giving rides to Navajos as he traveled around the checkerboard and reservation during his stint as a DNA lawyer.[9] 
Another strategy of ride procurement, last in Lamphere's hierarchy, was to go to a public gathering place and try to procure a ride.[10]  Many of these ride seekers were Navajo men returning from off-reservation employment.  While trains and buses brought them to Gallup, they often had to look for a ride home.  For those Navajos stranded in Gallup, congregating in a public place was a popular option.  Of the public places available, bars offered one of the few spots where a person in need of a ride could hope to find a person who could give them a ride, provided, of course, that the ride seeker kept ordering drinks.  Ted Rushton gave outbound hitchhikers rides from Gallup to the Navajo Inn, just across the reservation line north of town.  His passengers, usually from the more distant parts of the reservation, explained that "sooner or later, I will meet someone [at the bar] from over there and he can give me ride home."[11]   
At the end of the night, bar owners turned out into the streets those Navajos who had failed to find a ride along with any drinkers who were too inebriated to operate their vehicles.  Some Navajos did drive while drunk, which accounts in part for higher mortality rates among Navajo drinkers than among Anglo drinkers.  Drunk driving was pervasive enough that McKinley County routinely was among the top counties in the nation for per capital deaths due to alcoholism, largely because of drunk-driving fatalities.[12]  Many of these fatalities were Navajos who did not live in McKinley County but rather in dry reservation areas.  Compounding the problem, Navajos routinely had to travel further, along worse and more isolated roads, so accidents were more likely to occur.  When the inevitable happened, the injuries to the victims tended to be worse, and due to the distance from medical facilities, the injured had higher mortality rates.[13] 
For those Navajos who did not drive, however, the experience of being drunk in Gallup changed radically.  Prior to 1970, the mostly male intoxicated Navajos found on the street by police were taken to the Gallup jail.  This solution had some merits.  Being picked up by the police meant that individual Navajo men were less likely to freeze to death on the streets, especially during Gallup's bitter winters. Even during summer, nighttime temperatures got so cold that death by exposure was a real threat for those sleeping outdoors.  Further, many Navajos who were drunk slept in the streets and were at risk for being run over by automobiles and trucks.  However, the Gallup jail routinely had some 200 prisoners and only 72 bunks.[14]
The conditions inside the jail were intolerable.  Valentino Curley, a Navajo from Ganado, brought suit with two other inmates against the Gallup jail in February of 1970.  During the suit, lawyers graphically depicted the problems in the jail.  One room that held 182 prisoners was a mere forty by forty feet..  For these 182 prisoners, authorities provided but 66 cots draped in bed linen that was "old, filthy, infected with lice,."  The cots had neither sheets nor pillows and there were only 45 blankets to go around.  There was standing water on the floor due to improper drainage.  Jailers did not provide clothes and there were no facilities to wash those inmates were already wearing, nor were visitors allowed to bring fresh clothes.  The 182 prisoners ate but two meals a day, and during those meals shared some fifty plates and cups that were not washed between uses.[15]
Although distressed by the material conditions, Curley spent much of his own testimony describing the economic problems being in jail caused him.  Curley was the only member of his family who was employed.  If he pled guilty, the forty-five day sentence would cost his family dearly.  But if he pled not guilty he faced three weeks of jail time before his trial even came up.  The prosecutor did not offer him work release.  He chose to plead guilty and endure the forty-five day sentence.  However, he could not call his family to let them know where he was nor could he call his employer who might have posted bail for him pending a trial.[16]  As was the case for other Navajos who were picked up, being incarcerated did not help Curley, but compounded his problems.  Curley lost his job and lost contact with his family.  The delicate web of economic and social relations that held Curley's and other inmates' lives together was severely damaged.   
This situation changed after Curley won his suit in federal court in February of 1970.  The court restricted the jail to 60 inmates, and, as a consequence, the drunk tank was limited to 44 persons.[17]  As a result, the 400 to 450 Navajos whom Chief Manuel Gonzalez used to arrest regularly in Gallup were more visible than ever.  An Anglo woman resident described why Navajo drinking was so much more visible than Anglo or Hispano drinking.  She argued that "If a tourist lady comes down and finds an Indian dead drunk draped over the hood of her car... or if a townsperson sees it, they go away with the idea that these are drunken Indians whereas the country club drinkers can [drive home] and pass out - not over the hood on somebody's car - but their own bed."[18]  These differences in drinking behavior between Anglo and Hispano residents and non-resident Navajos, combined with old stereotypes about Native Americans and alcohol, compounded the problem of perception in Gallup.  Gallup became a hotbed for stories about "drunk Indians."  Not only the New Yorker, but several national television shows ran stories on the problem of "Indian drinking" in Gallup.[19]  The visibility of the 400 to 450 Native American repeat offenders in Gallup, when combined with stereotypes of Native American alcohol use, led many, including perhaps Calvin Trillin, to connect alcoholism with all Navajos and by extension, Native America as a whole.
With the jail population limited, driving Gallup's roads at night became "terrifying" as Mary Rushton put it, "because you don't know if you are going to run over somebody passed out in the road."[20]    Here was the most graphic demonstration of street-level conflict in Gallup.  Residents, who were largely Anglo and Hispano, were scared to drive the streets of their own town because they feared running over non-resident Navajos in the streets.  Their previous solution, locking up these Navajos in an outdated and over-crowded jail, was declared illegal in a suit brought by families of incarcerated Navajos and pursued by DNA.  The Navajos on the street were bad for tourist business, and the national attention focused on the town did not help Gallup's reputation as a tourist destination.  Drinking Navajos who previously had been placed in the intolerable jail were now exposed to the hazards of weather and vehicular traffic.  The families of hard core drinkers received no help, nor did the drinkers themselves.  Meanwhile, all Navajos (and by extension Native Americans throughout the Southwest and the United States) were portrayed as derelicts and drunks regardless of their actual behavior.
 Solutions to these the problem were not forthcoming from any quarter.  Gallup's politicians claimed they could not build a treatment facility without bankrupting the town and asked both the Navajo Nation and the federal government for help.  The Navajo Nation's own resources were stretched thin. Navajo leaders responded that since Gallup liquor merchants were profiting from off-reservation drinking, Gallup ought to finance most, if not all, of the cost of building a treatment facility.  The federal government financed some small programs through the public health service, but no funds were available to build the desperately needed treatment facility.[21]  While it might be tempting to consider the question of Navajo drinking as either a political or social problem (or both), to do so would miss an important underlying factor in the situation.  If we let the notion of competing geographies inform our thinking, then we can understand this crisis more fully.  To put it simply, by the late 1960s   Gallup's streets had become contested terrain.  On the streets, the geography of Navajo leisure and alcohol use intersected with the geography of tourist and residential Gallup.  Because Gallup politicians were unable to control the process of Navajo place-making in Gallup, they resorted to the use of force in the form of the police to implement their vision.  However, Navajos, through their lawyers, opposed these measures, eventually forcing the police and courts to limit the jail population and to develop new strategies for dealing with Navajos' recreational use of Gallup.

[1]Keep in mind that some Navajos were Gallup residents.
[2]Calvin Trillin, "U.S. Journal: Gallup New Mexico - Drunken Indians,"  The New Yorker, Sept. 25, 1971, p.108.
[3]Doris Duke, Box 14, File 621.
[4]Trillin, pp. 110-112.
[5]Doris Duke, Box 12 Folder 356. 
[6]Levy and Kunitz, summarized in Kunitz and Levy, Drinking Careers pp. 2-3.
[7]Kunitz and Levy, p. 8.
[8]Lamphere, pp. 127-8.  The difference between a household and a residence group is somewhat arbitrary, but can roughly be defined by the divisions of space and labor.  According to Lamphere, households share a living space (such as a house or hogan) and share daily household chores.  Residence groups are households located near each other that share responsibility for sheep and agricultural fields. Lamphere pp. 69-85.
[9]Lamphere, p.128; Treisman interview.
[10]Lamphere, p. 128.
[11]Doris Duke, Box 14, File 641.
[12]New Mexico in Maps 2nd ed., ed. Jerry L. Williams (Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 1986) pp. 206-8.
[13]Doris Duke, Box 14, File 643-I; Levy and Kunitz,
[14]Doris Duke, Box 14, File 280.
[15]Diné Baa-Hani "What's wrong with Gallup Jail?,"March 1970. p. 3; Valentino Curley, "The Gallup Jail - What it's like," Feb. 1970, p.3.
[16]Valentino Curley, "The Gallup Jail -What it's like."
[17]Doris Duke, Box 14, File 280.
[18]Doris Duke, Box 14, Folder 641-I
[19]Doris Duke, Box 14, Folder 643-I.  As of yet, I have been unable to locate these television shows although they have been mentioned in several oral histories.  At least one was aired on PBS and another on CBS.
[20]Doris Duke, Box 14, Folder 641-I
[21]Doris Duke, Box 14, Folder 641; Folder 643-I.

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