During his six-year term on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Chairman Arlan Melendez of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony saw more than his share of racism, discrimination and hate crimes against Native Americans.
But even he was surprised by the vicious attacks by skinheads against one of his tribe’s families, Johnny and Lisa Bonta, in Fernley, Nevada in late May.
“We know from hearings in Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota that hate crimes are continuing to happen against Native Americans, mostly in border towns near our reservations,” he said, citing a soon-to-be released report developed by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that compiled testimony in 2009 about hate crimes from hundreds of Americans Indians.
The report follows up on the 2005 Department of Justice report that showed the overall violent crime rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives was 100 per 1,000 persons, meaning that one out of 10 American Indians has been a victim of violence.
The study also found that “American Indians are more likely than people of other races to experience violence at the hands of someone of a different race,” with 70 percent of reported violent attacks committed by non-Indians.
“Nevada was always known as the ‘Mississippi of the West’ for its rampant racism. Up until the late 1950s, Indians had to be off the streets by sundown or face arrest,” said Melendez. “Reno was a very racist place, but over the years it’s become more diversified as more Hispanic people moved into the area. Sadly, that’s not the case in many rural communities where there’s still a lot of good ‘ole boy attitudes.”
Melendez said he was shocked and very concerned about the hate crime committed against tribal members, especially since the victims are now being portrayed as the perpetrators, despite evidence to the contrary.
“We need to put pressure on law enforcement and the judicial system to ensure the Bontas are treated fairly. Our main concern is that these attacks need to be taken very seriously and fully investigated as hate crimes,” he said. “Lots of times there are questions about who has jurisdiction in small towns near reservations, and we try to work cooperatively with them, but sometimes they want to sweep things under the rug. All we are asking for is fairness and equitable treatment.”
Melendez said it’s difficult to establish adequate and effective oversight to ensure border towns are respecting the civil and human rights of Americans Indians.
“How do we make sure their elected officials, law enforcement and judges are not prejudiced or have negative attitudes about Native Americans?” he asked. “I would hope they wouldn’t want their community to get a black eye and bad reputation for harboring racist attitudes.”
But one of the few large-scaled studies of hate crimes conducted in recent years indicates that only 10 percent of hate crimes against Natives are reported to law enforcement authorities, according to Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario who interviewed nearly 300 American Indians in border towns. She said the low reporting rate was largely due to "historical and contemporary experience with the police, and the perception they do not take Native American victimization seriously."
In her 2007 book “Anti-Indianism in Modern America,” Native American Studies professor Elizabeth Cook-Lynn said, "There has been little attempt by legal authorities or anyone else to understand the phenomenon of racially motivated violence in these communities. The first step is to acknowledge that anti-Indian hate crime is America’s essential cancer and that it is a mortal illness, as devastating as anti-Semitism has been to other parts of the world."
Melendez said he’s spoken to other tribal leaders in the region and they are asking law enforcement in Nevada communities to keep an eye out for clusters of neo-Nazi skinheads or other organizations that promote hate against minorities.
“We hear stories all the time about racial slurs in businesses and stores, and we hear from Native people who are getting attacked because of racial hatred. We have to do more to make people accountable for their actions,” said Melendez.
“People should report these incidents no matter how minor they seem because small things lead to big things,” he said.
“Every Native American has the right not to be threatened or abused. We’ve kept quiet about these things for too long, and it’s time to publicly speak out against this type of unacceptable behavior.”