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The ‘Reasonable Radical’ Duane Yazzie’s Career of Activism and Service

Duane “Chili” Yazzie has built a career as a Navajo activist and politician while considering himself a “reasonable radical” through it all.
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When a journalist asks Duane “Chili” Yazzie a question, he takes his time. He mulls the question, selects his words carefully and carefully forms his answer. Yazzie, 62, is no stranger to the media. He estimates he has granted 60 interviews since embarking on a lifelong journey as a Navajo activist and politician.

“I think of myself as the reasonable radical,” he said of his career, which shows no signs of slowing down. “My commitment to Native issues and human rights is clear and I will do what I believe I need to do to promote and defend those rights and causes.”

Yazzie took office in January as president of the Shiprock Chapter, which is in the northwest corner of New Mexico. This is his third term as leader of the Navajo Nation’s largest chapter, and he faces issues of transparency, economic development and a sense of malaise that seems to have settled over Shiprock, where 40 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line and where the tribe has sanctioned funding until chapter leaders demonstrate financial accountability.

A complex and sometimes controversial man, Yazzie has spent his life as an activist, politician, poet, farmer and family man. He rubbed shoulders with activists like Russell Means and Dennis J. Banks during the 1970s while touring the country as a percussionist for the American Indian band XIT, and was on the front lines of some of the most newsworthy occurrences on the Navajo Nation.

He witnessed the 1975 takeover of the Fairchild plant in Shiprock. He lost his right arm in 1978 when a white man shot him during a possible hate crime. He was in Window Rock, Arizona, during the 1989 riot that left two people dead. He mobilized his community after the 2006 fatal shooting of Navajo man Clint John by a white police officer in Farmington, New Mexico.

In quiet times, Yazzie writes poetry, enjoys the company of his three children and eight grandchildren, and grows corn and melons on his farm.

This is his story.

Not-so-humble beginnings

Yazzie was born in 1950, nearly four decades after his grandfather made history during an incident known as the Beautiful Mountain Rebellion in September 1913. Yazzie’s paternal grandfather, Hatahlie Yazhie, or Little Singer, had three wives and no intention of complying with the federal law against polygamy. The Bureau of Indian Affairs sent a posse of law enforcement officers to the cluster of hogans where Yazhie lived and arrested the women and children while he was attending a ceremony elsewhere.

When Yazhie learned his family was locked up, he grabbed his rifle and went on horseback with 12 other men to rescue his wives and children. The men beat up the guards and locked them in their own jail. U.S. President Grover Cleveland declared an emergency and called the military to action. Trainloads of soldiers arrived in Gallup, New Mexico.

“The army organized, mobilized and headed north,” Yazzie said. “From their vantage point on top of the Beautiful Mountain, my grandpa and clan folks watched the column of soldiers slowly slosh through the mud.”

Brig. Gen. Hugh L. Scott didn’t know how to proceed, Yazzie said. “America was supposed to be at peace, and the Indians were supposed to have been conquered and tamed,” he said. “However overblown the Beautiful Mountain Rebellion might have been my grandpa shattered this idyllic notion of America’s tamed Indians.”

Yazzie’s grandfather submitted to arrest after three days of parlay. He and the 12 other men were charged with rioting, brandishing weapons in an establishment, theft of a firearm, assault and battery. Jail sentences ranging from 10 to 30 days were suspended. “They were treated as victorious heroes, as warriors returning home,” Yazzie said. His grandfather kept his wives with no further comment from the federal government.

“By today’s moral standards, it may be deemed that the causes of the Beautiful Mountain Rebellion were not exactly honorable,” he said. “Nevertheless, I for one am proud to be a child of Diné People who did not hesitate to defend what they believed to be right.”

James Zion, an attorney who works closely with Yazzie and the Shiprock community, recalls telling the story of Beautiful Mountain to a group of people and noting Yazzie’s reaction. “He started beaming because one of those women was his grandmother,” Zion said of Yazzie. “He goes back in Shiprock royalty.”

Yazzie grew up in Shiprock a precocious child with an active imagination. He remembers sledding on car hoods down steep hills, dirt-clod battles with the other boys and cruising the dirt roads on his bike. He also remembers the first time he recognized inequality: the rows of houses near the helium plant, all occupied by white folks.

“Rez boys were not comfortable among the neat white houses with the mowed lawns,” Yazzie said. “I don’t believe it had to do with racial attitudes, but rather a condition of difference based on economics: the haves and the have-nots.”

These early observations would resurface decades later when Yazzie began an aggressive self-education of injustices and discrimination, catapulting him to the front of civil rights efforts from the 1970s forward. After going to San Francisco on a BIA training program in its waning days of relocation, Yazzie returned to the reservation with a heightened understanding of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and a determination to challenge the status quo.

“There’s a lot of hurt in the world,” he said. “I saw the condition of people – physical and economic, and I wanted to actively support and protect those people. My involvement was not so much a personal objective, but also a response to the call from people who believed I could be of help.”

That call came time and again from Navajos in northwestern New Mexico, where racial tensions have raged for half a century.

A community of violence

An invisible line separates Shiprock from the neighboring city of Farmington, New Mexico. That line, a deterrent for Navajos seeking shopping or employment opportunities in Farmington, is the memory of decades of racial injustices that range from social and economic disparities to full-blown hate crimes committed against the Navajo people.

The two communities, built 23 miles apart in the rugged beauty of the desert Southwest, make up one of the most violent areas for American Indians in modern times. Farmington, an oil and gas community that boomed in the 1950s is an economic hub for residents across the Four Corners area and home to a population of about 45,000 people. It dwarfs Shiprock, and it is the site of some of the most atrocious acts of racism in the last 40 years. “There’s something about Farmington,” said John Dulles, former director of the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S Commission on Civil Rights. “It’s a difficult place to be. There is violence, hate and racial prejudice, and Farmington is unique in some of that.”

Dulles twice in the last four decades helped investigate complaints of racism and violence against Navajos in Farmington. His name appears on two civil rights reports on Farmington: one in 1975 following the murder and mutilation of three Navajo men – a tragedy resulting from “Indian rolling” by three white Farmington High School students – and again in 2005 as a follow-up investigation.

The 1975 report, prepared by the New Mexico advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, found that “Native Americans in almost every area suffer from injustice and maltreatment.” The report was based on a field investigation and a three-day open meeting. The injustices included lack of medical treatment, poor administration of justice and an economic system that benefited Farmington while profiting from the region’s Native populations.

The report also examined the murders, which resulted from “an attitude held by some individuals … that is conducive to treating Navajos and intoxicated persons not like people but as things,” Byron Caton, assistant district attorney for San Juan County, told the advisory committee. “Rolling and robbing an intoxicated person” was a common occurrence in Farmington at the time, Caton said. The three boys responsible for the murders – and for burning and bludgeoning the bodies – were sent to reform school.

Thousands of Navajos protested with a march on Farmington. Among them was Yazzie, then in his 20s and just beginning to understand the issues of racism and human rights.

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Yazzie, who is better known as “Chili,” became a voice for the Navajo people and began paving a path of “peaceful resistance” on which he has walked since. He testified 30 years later when Dulles returned to Farmington to track progress in relationships between the races. “Relations in the ’60s and ’70s were such that I would give Farmington a score of a D-grade,” Yazzie said. “With the improvements, I would give the community a C-plus or even a B-minus.”

The follow-up report found improvements, but determined that Navajos still were disproportionately arrested and incarcerated, they still lived in poverty and were relegated to low-income occupations and they still suffered disproportionately high levels of disease and health-related problems.

The report was published in November 2005. Seven months later, three white men beat a Navajo man while shouting racial slurs at him. Six days after that, a white Farmington police officer fatally shot a Navajo man in the Wal-Mart parking lot. The two incidents launched another bitter battle between the Navajo Nation and Farmington.

Human Rights Commission

The New York Times compared the events of June 2006 to those of 1974, calling the acts of racial violence “a bad spirit drifting down from the sandpaper mesas and scrub-speckled hillsides.”

Yazzie, a veteran of the 1970s marches on Farmington, helped organize the protests in 2006 when a police officer, during a struggle with Clint John, shot the unarmed man four times. The police claimed John had assaulted his girlfriend and then attacked the officer – testimony that held up in court three years later when a federal court dismissed the family’s lawsuit against the city.

Yazzie, acting as a voice for John’s family, demanded answers from Farmington’s city government. He also helped keep panic at a minimum, said Bill Standley, who served as mayor of Farmington from 1998-2010. “To label Chili as an activist puts him in a negative light,” Standley said. “He is a positive force. He believes things can be made better.”

Yazzie took the negative situation surrounding the shooting and turned a protest into a memorial, Standley said. “The city provided a platform for Chili to speak, and he organized a march that was originally going to be a protest, but that ended up being a memorial for Clint John,” he said. “Chili helped keep tensions at a reasonable level. I was extremely appreciative for the type of demonstration that happened under Chili’s leadership.”

Yazzie’s experiences as an activist earned him a place on the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, formed in 2008 in response to the Clint John shooting. He served as chairman of the commission for four years. He traveled to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and other international forums promoting Native rights. He also helped put in place Memoranda of Understanding between the Navajo Nation and seven of its 13 border towns, including Farmington. “Chili was the right person in the right place at the right time to lead the Human Rights Commission,” Standley said. “He worked aggressively to make things better.”

The city of Farmington also established a Community Relations Commission to address discrimination and complaints of racism. Standley and Yazzie worked together to effect real change in Farmington, Dulles said. “Together they provided a catalyst, leadership to try to address issues in a mutual manner,” he said. “They were responsible for a period of time when things got better. It wasn’t just rhetoric, not window dressing. They were making important changes.”

Yazzie believes his role as an activist strengthened him as a politician. He has served on a number of appointed elected positions at chapter, tribal and state levels. “Being an activist and holding office has required me to not sit on the sidelines,” he said. “It’s given me the impetus to take certain positions and say things that need to be said.”

Shiprock presidency

Yazzie left the Human Rights Commission in July when he decided he needed to be closer to home. He made a bid for the Shiprock Chapter presidency, a position he left in 2009 when William Lee unseated him.

He defeated Lee in November with nearly 1,700 votes to Lee’s 550. “He was re-elected leader by a landslide by people who want to make sure they are represented by a person with the ability to reach agreements,” Standley said of Yazzie.

Yazzie’s two-term presidency, from 2000 to 2008, wasn’t without controversy. He volunteered to be placed on administrative leave because of his involvement with Biochemical Decontamination Systems (BCDS), a now-defunct Shiprock business that failed when its CEO disappeared with millions of Navajo dollars in 2007.

The chapter voted against disciplining Yazzie, who did consulting for BCDS. A special prosecutor hired by the Navajo Nation in 2009 named Yazzie as a target for possible prosecution in an investigation into BCDS and other business ventures that also targeted the Navajo president and vice president.

Charges were never brought against Yazzie, said Zion, who was poised to represent Yazzie. The statute of limitations has since expired and the prosecutor failed to show any violations of law.

Yazzie, who collected a paycheck for his consulting services, was honest about his involvement, Zion said. “I was ready to spin for Chili, to make him look good even as he faced charges,” Zion said. “But you don’t have to spin for Chili because he’s too busy telling the truth.”

As he takes office in Shiprock, Yazzie will tackle community and economic development, a shortage of affordable housing and other challenges. He also faces more recent issues of discrimination and racial violence.

In 2010, a group of men branded a swastika on a developmentally disabled Navajo man and later were the first people charged under the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Those men are now in prison.

RELATED: Two Sentenced in Swastika Branding Case

In 2011, a San Juan County Sheriff’s deputy was caught on video beating a Navajo man with his baton. That officer was fired for brutality and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission found that race was a factor in the incident.

Those who know Yazzie have high hopes for his continued work to end racism. “If you don’t have someone who is vocal and can stand up and say something is wrong, then nothing changes,” Standley said. “If something is wrong, you need someone like Chili to get people’s attention. If he wasn’t present, there are a lot of people who still wouldn’t understand.”

Tommy Roberts, who has served as mayor of Farmington since 2010, said the city likely will continue to battle racism. “We are never going to rid our community entirely of racism because there will always be a few people who won’t understand,” he said.

Roberts worked closely with Yazzie and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission to draft the Memorandum of Understanding the city signed in 2010. He said he is optimistic about working with Yazzie in the coming years. “During my time as mayor, I have seen Chili Yazzie as a calming influence and a voice of reason in situations that could have escalated,” he said.

Yazzie “could be in a state of resentment or hatred, especially because of what he experienced in terms of hate crimes,” Dulles said. “But Chili is a spiritual person. He has a deeper, philosophical understanding of people. … He’s someone who actually believes you can sit down and work things out.”

As long as Yazzie is around, Navajos have a positive force on their side, Dulles said. “Work on civil rights is never done,” he said. “It has to be done continuously, not just in times of crisis. Chili has a track record of doing that.”