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The culture of Gallup

Part one

Gallup, N.M., the ''Indian capital of the world,'' is the leading border town in the United States. It has five reservations - Navajo, Zuni, Ramah, Hopi and Acoma - feeding into it. They bring it well over $200 million a year.

The things that are applicable to Gallup are pretty much applicable to 150 or more towns that border on Indian reservations. They include Flagstaff, Farmington, Page, Grants, Santa Fe, Holbrook, Winslow, Lumberton, Chadron, Rapid City and Scottsdale.

Gallup is the most successful of all. It has the most millionaires per thousand people in the world. New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Singapore all have fewer millionaires per thousand than Gallup. It has 350 or more millionaires in a population of 20,000.

And how do they make their money? Off of Indians. Gallup gets at least 60 percent of the money generated on the Navajo Reservation. It gets this money in the first cycle of spending. There is no slaughterhouse on the reservation, for instance. Families who do not have their own flocks, which is most families these days, buy almost all their groceries from Gallup.

The largest Ford truck dealership in the world, Gurley Motor Co., is located in Gallup. There are 80 Indian jewelry manufacturers in Gallup. Many of them pay wages below the federal minimum wage. They get away with it by paying piece rates.

The ring they buy from someone for $15 took the maker three hours to make, plus materials, meaning the person is making $4 an hour. They then re-sell the ring for between $30 and $45.

I have been working in Gallup for 20 years, mostly recruiting scholarship students. But I also worked four years as the evaluator for the Indian Education Act program in the 1980s and 1990s. I spent several hundred hours and visited all 29 of the Gallup schools.

The dropout rate is 65 percent for Indians. When a young Navajo teacher said this at a school board meeting 25 years ago, she was promptly blackballed. She told me she could never get a job teaching in the Gallup schools, and I believe her.

When I said the same thing in a letter to the state of New Mexico in 1988, the deputy superintendent, Harry Hendrickson, called me on the carpet. He told me I was not authorized to make those kinds of statements. Only he and the superintendent, Ramon Vigil, were authorized to make them.

''But Harry,'' I told him, ''I got the data from the reports you send to the state!''

''It doesn't matter,'' he said. ''Only Ramon and I are authorized to release that information.'' I knew that he meant if I did not toe the line that I might never get a contract with the school district again.

The schools are not interested in improving. They want to keep Indians in a poverty condition. They do not want to admit they have any dirty laundry, and will go to great lengths to hide it.

One morning in 1989 I was headed to the district office after visiting a school. When I passed the jail I saw about 75 Indians walking out and heading back downtown. They were obviously hung over.

''What were those 75 drunk Indians I just saw walking down by the jail?'' I asked my boss, Boyd Hogner.

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''That's just the 10 o'clock let-out,'' he said. ''They start about five or six in the morning. As soon as a group is sober enough, they start letting them out. The last one will be about noon.''

I calculated that the Gallup police were arresting about 300 to 400 Indians a night. And that was on a weeknight. On weekends the total is much higher.

The mayor, a Hispanic, was almost recalled a year or two later. He was cooperating with the Navajo Nation to raise money for an alcohol rehabilitation facility. He beat the recall petition by a few percentage points.

His sin? Admitting that Gallup had a problem with Indian drunks.

The school district, which is larger than the state of New Jersey, does not have a truancy officer. No one is there to try to get kids to go to school. Instead, they have a hearing officer. His job is to kick kids out of school.

The school district policy is that students have to go to school 170 out of 180 days. If an Indian kid misses 11 days, they call a hearing and kick him out. They kick kids out as young as 12 years old, despite the state law that says they have to go to school until they are 16. The tribal law says they have to go until they are 18 or are graduated from high school, but no one enforces that law.

When Frank Kattnig, who is half-German and half-Hispanic, was hired as the Johnson O'Malley counselor at Tohatchi High School in 1984, he set out to do something about it. I know Tohatchi because my goddaughter Tina Benallie is from there. Tina said the college attendance rate in 1984 was about 10 to 20 percent.

Frank raised it to 55 percent the first year he was there. In another eight years, he had raised it to 90 percent, and had the kids earning $1.2 million a year in scholarships. He kept that up the whole 15 years he was there, and retired in 1999.

But the second year he was there he got fired. He was accepting collect calls from some of the students that were away at college. They were not getting adequate guidance from the colleges, and would call Frank for help.

He stayed fired for about two weeks, but the parents called a meeting with the school district and demanded that he be rehired, and he was. After that, he was partly immune from firing.

Unfortunately, in the eight years since he retired, there have been about 10 people in that position. None of them would even talk to me until this year, when the new counselor, Rosa Gutierrez, called me to come to a Career Day she was having. One of the counselors was fiddling with a new computer program the whole time I was trying to talk to him. I knew he was not listening.

The six high schools put Indians into bonehead tracks. When I checked on the enrollment in advanced algebra at Gallup High School 18 years ago, there were only two Indian students in the two sections. Indians make up 65 percent of the total Gallup population, so if they had been adequately represented, there would have been 40 Indians in those classes.

My hope is that we will see some improvement in the Gallup schools one day.

(Continued in part two)

Dr. Dean Chavers is 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 from CTD will publish the ''National Indian Grant Directory'' and ''Reading for College'' in December. Contact him at Copyright (c) 2007. Reprinted with permission.