In Navajo culture, there is a teaching that “your words are like a prayer.” Words have the power to manifest our reality, to literally bring things into being.
Growing up, our elders admonished us to be careful with our words, especially harsh words that can’t be taken back—words that can compel others into action.
That’s why racist comments by Republicans Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs and Sarah Palin matter to public discourse. Their words create ripple effects across the country, including border towns and reservations.
When Palin recklessly misinforms people that President Obama “pals around with terrorists,” and tells her followers “don’t retreat, just reload,” that language has profound effects on her supporters, some of whom are racists and white supremacists. She feeds their misguided anger.
Meanwhile, Dobbs, Limbaugh, Beck and others of their ilk use public airwaves to preach their particular brand of toxic, racist rhetoric—the kind that urge Minute Men vigilantes to hunt down brown people in the Arizona desert.
What’s most outrageous is that they’re highly paid by Fox News to stir up divisiveness, hatred and xenophobia that fuel a dangerous, growing racial divide in this country targeting people of color from all ethnicities.
Crowds of almost exclusively white Tea Baggers gathered by the thousands to hear the message that it’s time to “take our country back,” implying someone or something has taken it from them.
Ask Native America how we feel about taking our country back.
In border towns surrounding Indian reservations with long histories of racial violence, words that promote racism and hate have serious implications.
When a developmentally disabled young Navajo man was kidnapped and branded with swastikas in Farmington, N.M., I wondered how Palin would feel if that happened to her son, who is part Yupik Eskimo and has Down Syndrome.
The attack occurred April 29, 2010 when three self-avowed white supremacists finished their shifts at a local McDonald’s, then decided to kidnap Vincent Kee, 22, and burn a swastika symbol into his flesh using a metal coat hanger.
They also shaved a swastika onto the back of his head and used markers to draw a pentagram, a penis, the numbers 666, “white power” and “KKK” on his body.
Jesse Sanford, 24, William Hatch, 28, and Paul Beebe, 26, were charged with first-degree felony kidnapping, second-degree felony conspiracy to commit kidnapping, third-degree felony aggravated battery causing great bodily harm, and fourth-degree felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery by Farmington Police.
A search of the crime scene at their apartment turned up evidence of association with the white supremacist movement, Nazi memorabilia, and a cell phone with a camera that recorded their crimes, according to police.
The defendants—who all pleaded not guilty—were later indicted by a grand jury and are now facing federal hate crimes charges under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, sometimes referred to as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C. has joined the New Mexico U.S. Department of Justice in prosecuting the case.
Hate crimes are defined as “offenses involving actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin” involving those who “willfully cause bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, or attempt to cause bodily injury. … because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Language in the Hate Crime Prevention Act notes that “Such violence disrupts the tranquility and safety of communities and is deeply divisive. A prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim and the family and friends of the victim, but frequently savages the community sharing traits that caused the victim to be selected.”
In an ironic legal defense, lawyers for two of the accused men have filed a motion asking the judge to declare the victim “incompetent” as the state’s main witness. Attorneys Eric Morrow and Cosme Ripol claim that Kee “has the mental capacity of a young child” due to severe developmental disabilities.
In my book, that further underscores the depravity of their actions toward a defenseless human being.
Fortunately, their clients were smart enough to record their crimes on a cell phone. If convicted, the defendants face prison terms ranging from 10 years to life.
For Diné citizens, this is only the most recent racist attack in a long history of conflict between the original landowners of this country and those who immigrated to our homelands seeking liberty, freedom, and “justice for all.”
We grieved over the 1974 beating and burning of three Navajo men in Farmington by three white high school students. Beating up Indians had become a rite of passage for some racists, spurring activism by Navajo community leaders to stop the violence and forge solutions.
That was followed by the 2006 kidnapping and severe beating of another Navajo man by three young white men that reminded us all that race relations sorely needed improvement.
And only weeks ago, there was yet another racially motivated attack on a Navajo man in Farmington by a group of non-Indians.
Countless other violent incidents against Native peoples go unreported each year, or are not prosecuted as hate crimes. Ask anyone.
In Indian country, we all know someone who was harassed by angry white youth trying to “take back their country” or prove their superiority by beating down First Americans.
“Mistreatment of fellow humans is a learned behavior,” said Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission Chairman Duane “Chili” Yazzie, who was among early leaders in the ’70s trying to stop the violence. “The only thing that will address that directly is education.”
Children learn what they live, and we must do more to teach tolerance, acceptance, and respect for others.
Those well-paid political messengers of racist rhetoric would do well to take a lesson from Diné elders and realize that they are manifesting their destiny in the worst way.
Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is president of Three Sisters Media, which offers publishing, social media and public relations services. She is also an award-winning journalist specializing in environmental, social justice and human rights issues. She is based in Albuquerque, N.M. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.