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Around the campfire

The culture of Gallup

Part two

Last month I wrote in this column about the culture of Gallup, N.M. This reservation border town on the edge of the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Acoma reservations brings in more than $400 million a year from the reservations.

The town gives back little, if anything, to the reservations. Twenty years ago, one of the tribes asked me how to raise money in Gallup. I spent a day giving them a seminar on how to do it. Find the most important person, I said, make friends with his best friend, and get the best friend to ask him to chair a fund-raising campaign.

Unfortunately, instead of doing it the way I suggested, the tribe decided to show up at the big man's office with a delegation of people from the tribe. The big man was Pat Gurley, the owner of the largest Ford truck dealership in the world.

When this delegation of five Indians showed up at his office unannounced and with no appointment, he threw them out. I'm sure both are still mystified about what happened. Gurley thought he had been sandbagged; the tribe had not laid its groundwork properly. And the tribe thinks Gurley is an anti-Indian bully, a lout, and an insensitive man. What a shame.

People have told me for years that Gallup does not want Indians to be educated. I believe it. The 350 millionaires in that town don't want Indians to be able to escape the wage-slave labor they are locked in now. Without them, the millionaires - including the 80 Indian jewelry manufacturers - would be much less powerful.

Jewelry is not the only industry, of course. Pawn shops, trading posts, motels and grocery stores are also big money-makers. The motel I have stayed in for 25 years is owned by a man from India who owns six motels. I saw him in Earl's Restaurant 15 years ago paying his lunch bill. He pulled out a roll that would choke an elephant.

In the winter, things are tight in the motel business. You can get a room anywhere, mostly for under $50. But in the summer, prices double and the places are full. One of the motel managers told me last summer that they were running at 98 percent occupancy. That means that someone is getting rich.

My aunt and her husband owned a motel in Phoenix in the 1960s and 1970s. When they bought it, occupancy was 80 percent. Within seven years they built it to 98 percent and sold it for three times what they paid for it. Motels can be money-makers.

For years, the school board in Gallup had four Anglo or Hispanic members, and one Indian. He was a harmless old Navajo who never challenged the system. He went along to get along, never pushing the envelope.

Then, 10 years ago, the National Indian Youth Council won a lawsuit changing the way school board members were elected. Instead of having at-large elections, which let people in Gallup always win, the court ordered the district to go to single-member districts. That meant a district with a large Indian enrollment could elect an Indian. In the next election, the vote put three Indians and two whites on the board.

Within a year, the Indians had let the symbol of the old guard, Ramon Vigil, go. He was the boy wonder of his day, being hired as superintendent in his early 30s. When the board let him go after more than a decade in office, Ramon was only 42. He decided to go to law school.

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He represented the old families of Gallup. The really important families are either Anglo or Hispanic. While there are some Persians and East Indians who are important in business, none of them runs the city, the sheriff's department or the school district. Ramon was clearly Hispanic.

The board replaced him with Bob Gomez, who served for six years. One of the Indian board members switched her vote at the last moment, choosing Gomez over Joe Martin, a Navajo.

The schools did improve somewhat under Gomez, who was outspoken about things. But when he retired and moved back to California, the next person in line, Karen White, was clearly from the old school.

Things went back to business as usual. After two and a half years, the board let her go in the middle of the year and put in an interim. They are looking for a superintendent now. The schools actually regressed under White. Only two of the 31 schools met the minimum requirements.

The Gurleys, the Tanners, the Ortegas and the Vigils run Gallup. They select the mayor and the school superintendent, using their people on the city council and the school board. They are just like the five families who ran Muskogee, Okla., when I was president of Bacone College.

When a young man in Muskogee wanted to run for mayor, he told several of his friends. One of them went to the leader of one of the five families and told him the young man wanted to run. ''How can he run?'' the leader asked. ''I don't even know him.''

This is the same thing W. Averill Harriman said about Jimmy Carter when he wanted to run for president in 1975. Harriman went to his grave disturbed about how Carter could run and win without his blessing. He had picked presidents for decades by that time.

In 1970, a bunch of us from Alcatraz went to Gallup to protest the inhuman conditions that Indians working in the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial had to live and work in. The Navajo youth had invited us there; the National Indian Youth Council hosted us.

We spent a week there, during which time we got kicked out of several bars. As soon as we walked into some of them, they would kick us out without serving us. The word had gotten around town. The conditions did get a little better as the result of our demonstrations. The Gallup ceremonial is still one of the biggest money-makers for the city, pulling tens of millions each August to the one-week event.

The population of the city itself is 36.6 percent Native. Even with this large percentage, there have never been any Native people on the City Council. Those seats are reserved for whites and Hispanics.

Gallup is still a little frontier town living off Indians. So are Farmington, Holbrook, Winslow, Page, Flagstaff, Muskogee, Tahlequah, Anadarko and Chadron. Maybe some time they will show some appreciation for the people who support them, instead of throwing us in jail, throwing our kids out of school, arresting us by the tens of thousands every night, and calling us names.

But I know as surely as I write this that somewhere right now there are groups of people scheming to develop ways to keep Indians off the Gallup City Council, on the poverty line, and in debt.

Dr. Dean Chavers is the director of Catching the Dream of Albuquerque, N.M. CTD awards scholarships to Native college students and grants to Indian schools to help them improve. His latest book, ''Modern American Indian Leaders,'' is available at CTD was expected to publish ''Reading for College'' and the fifth edition of the ''National Indian Grant Directory'' in December. E-mail him at