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'Drunktown's Finest' Papers Over Border Town Violence and Bigotry

Drunktown’s Finest, written and produced by Diné filmmaker Sydney Freeland, opened to positive reviews at the Sundance film festival in 2014. That upbeat reception followed the film as it screened in independent and major theaters throughout the country. By popular demand, it returned in recent weeks to Albuquerque, Phoenix, and several other cities with large Native populations.

The film follows three Navajo characters looking for meaningful lives in a town that borders the Navajo Nation. The characters, Nizhoni, Sick Boy, and Felixia, eventually meet up when their separate narratives converge at the home of their relatives, two elders who oversee the Kinaaldá, the Navajo puberty ceremony, for Sick Boy’s sister. Each character faces trials as they struggle to create meaning out of their lives.

Reviews have generally been positive, calling Drunktown a film that affirms Navajo traditional culture, and a possible source for individual redemption against the poverty, racism, and discrimination that characterize Native American life.

The intertwining narrative of the characters is set in a place that resembles the town of Gallup, New Mexico, a border town to the Navajo Nation that has been denounced for its treatment of Natives for decades. In several interviews, Freeland speaks to the depiction of her hometown in a 20/20 news story that aired in the 1980s. The story earned Gallup the name “Drunk Town, USA.” Freeland addresses the damning assessment of Gallup to show that hope and humanity can exist in such a place.

The three characters’ trials foreshadow the state of border towns like Gallup that sit on indigenous lands of the Navajo and Zuni, places where systemic violence in the form of poverty, racism, discrimination and the exploitation of Native peoples, primarily Navajos, is ongoing.

Sick Boy faces the challenge of learning how to take responsibility as a Navajo man. He has few role models and this lack is exemplified when he visits his mother who lives in a motel with an abusive white man. Sick Boy expresses his anger at the treatment of his mother and half-sibling by his mother’s partner, but he doesn’t seem to think he might need to do more than beat his mother’s abuser up and leave his mother and his half-brother to their fates.

Nizhoni, who was adopted by a white couple, feels compelled to find her Navajo parents and relatives, something her adoptive parents do not understand. Her story is a familiar one to Navajos who have experienced the loss of their children through the adoption process. There are too many stories of Navajo mothers who lost their children to adoption without being fully informed about what was happening. Too often the reason Native children were taken was because decision-makers from the dominant society thought it was in the best interest of the child to be given the benefits of white middle-class materiality and values.

The third character, Felixia, is played by a Navajo transgender. Freeland acknowledges that she, too, is transgender, and created a transgender role in the film to bring public attention to multiple Navajo genderswho often adopt the Navajo term “nádleehí,” showing that they belong in Navajo society.

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On the one hand, Felixia is depicted as having caring grandparents who acknowledge that nádleehí are valued members of Navajo society. On the other hand, she also faces discrimination by dominant society in the border town, and by her own people when she tries out as a model for the Women of the Navajo calendar.

Although no reason is advanced, Felixia makes her money by prostituting herself. The three characters’ stories, then, depict a border town that devours Navajos, thinks nothing of exploiting them as resources – as labor and cash they can bring to Drunk Town – and once consumed, their bodies are left in the gutters and ditches. Alive, they are the nameless who come into the town to do their business and seen as mostly unwanted visitors and the source of the town’s dysfunction.

It is still the case that Native peoples are rendered as stereotypes—the drunk Indian and the squaw drudge, for example—that confirm society’s suspicions of what Indians are like. That is what Freeland hopes to challenge.

However, given that a border town like Gallup continues to perpetuate an atmosphere where violence against Natives is the ordinary, a narrative that ignores the realities of Navajo people’s experiences in border towns serves to help sustain the injustices. Every day, Natives, mostly Navajos, die on Gallup’s streets and in its ditches due mostly to alcoholism. Alcohol-related deaths include exposure and incidents like domestic violence, assaults, and murders that have been normalized.

Drunktown’s Finest glosses over the sustained violence that shapes the border town’s relationship with Native and Navajo peoples.

In hopes of redeeming her hometown, Freeland ends her film with the trope of finding healing and redemption in tradition and culture. When Native peoples are traumatized, they need only channel tradition and healing will begin. The separation of “tradition” from the “politics” of challenging structures of domination and exploitation individualizes our responses to self-healing and keeps the undercurrents of a town like Gallup intact.

Sometimes art is about making us feel good so we don’t have to do anything about a problem that seems insurmountable.

Jennifer Denetdale is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. She was appointed to the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission to serve a four-year term and heads the Commission’s study on gender violence on the Navajo Nation.