This first appeared in Indian Country Today in August 2013.
The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission has completed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the U.S. Department of Justice. Signed in July by commission chairperson Steven A. Darden, Navajo, and Justice Department officials, the MOU focuses on enforcement of tribal members’ federal civil rights in border towns surrounding the Navajo Nation.
The off-reservation municipalities lie in four states: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. Going forward, NNHRC and the Indian Working Group—a team of attorneys within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division—will share information and forward documented incidents in the towns to the proper authorities, said NNHRC executive director, Leonard Gorman, Navajo.
Prior to participating in this historic agreement, NNHRC held 25 hearings culminating in a 2010 report on border town discrimination. Like previous reports—including by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission—this one found rampant hostility towards Navajos. Hearing attendees reported unfair and hazardous employment practices, insensitive schools, denial of service in public places, predatory businesses, criminalization of spiritual traditions, tragic land losses and police brutality. Threaded through the grievances is a horrific litany of uninvestigated beatings and killings of Navajos.
The offenses occur in an economic context that finds some 70 percent of Navajo income spent in the border towns, according to NNHRC’s report. Yet, tribal members rarely benefit from jobs, skills training or other opportunities. The report concludes, “The human rights of the Navajo People will no longer be an impediment to change, but the impetus for change around us.”
In addition to the report and the MOU, NNHRC’s work with border towns generated the groundbreaking Border Town Mayors’ Summit. One Colorado mayor returned from the annual event to tell his local newspaper he heard experts speak on the challenges of a diverse community; he also learned about social problems, including drug and alcohol abuse, and law enforcement issues, such as racial profiling and dealing with street inebriates. “For me, it was a bit of a culture shock,” he told the reporter.
“We all, as human beings, aspire to better lives and livelihoods every day,” said Gorman. “The MOUs address the fundamentals of problems our people face in achieving that.” Gorman told ICTMN more about the commission’s work.
How did the federal MOU come about?
Since our office opened in 2008, we’ve made good friends and contacts and engaged with folks from federal agencies, including the Department of Justice. At the same time, we were creating MOUs with the border towns. We decided to do something similar with the federal government.
Is the Justice Department MOU the first of its kind?
Yes. It’s an example of self-determination and an aspect of our nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government. The Navajo Nation intends to look out for its people in the border towns, and this is a medium for that.
What changes have the border town MOUs produced?
Almost immediately upon engaging the mayors, they created their border town summit. These meetings and this engagement will not precipitate instantaneous change, but we are all beginning to talk. We are also planning cultural sensitivity training for law enforcement, with specific information about how and why Navajos do certain things.
NNHRC has a predatory auto sales project; how did this arise?
Numerous Navajos raised concerns about auto purchases in the border towns, including people driving away with a vehicle they’d been assured they had financing for, only to be later told the financing had fallen through and now they had to accept a higher interest rate. We engaged the dealers and their trade groups, which have protocols for complaints and understand the need for the customer to be happy.
Some cases are resolved; others are being evaluated. The best redress is usually from the dealer, because they don’t want to be exposed as engaging in unscrupulous practices. We’re also working with Autocap, a New Mexico service that provides mediation. Though complaints will likely be ongoing, we’re hopeful we’re coming to a close on this project. Our effort has been to define the problem as a human one—one human being taking advantage of another.
What are upcoming projects?
A very important issue is the language barrier Navajo people face in municipal and state courts. It’s a human rights issue—people have the right to understand a court proceeding in their preferred language. So, these courts must provide translation. We will also be working on treatment of Navajo citizens by law enforcement, violence against Native woman and gender preference issues.
Is the Justice Department MOU a template for other communities?
I’d hope other indigenous nations would engage the federal government in this manner.
As human beings, we must learn respect each other more.
For NNHRC’s website, with useful information ranging from the border town report to what to do if pulled over by police, click here: http://www.nnhrc.navajo-nsn.gov/.