Concerns about the treatment of Native Americans in Cortez and the broader Four Corners area were aired at two hearings of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in Montezuma County on Oct. 27.
The seven-member commission, Director Steven Chavez, two commission lawyers, and a field representative from Grand Junction lined the front of the packed room around the dais at the day’s first hearing, which took place in Cortez at the First National Bank Building.
John Dulles, retired regional director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Denver, recognized the many dignitaries and elected officials in the room. They included County Commissioner Larrie Rule; City Council member Karen Sheek; former Cortez Mayor Orly Lucero; Ed Singer, certified Navajo court interpreter and president of Cameron Chapter in the Navajo Nation; Montelores Human Rights Commission members Bill Jobin and Gene Peck; Police Chief Roy Lane; Cortez City Manager Shane Hale; Troy Ralstin, director of the Ute Mountain Housing and Urban Development office; and Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission Director Leonard Gorman.
The role of the civil-rights group includes conducting hearings involving illegal discriminatory practices; advising the governor and General Assembly on policies and legislation that address illegal discrimination; and reviewing appeals of cases investigated and dismissed by the division; and adopt and amend rules and regulations to be followed in the enforcement of the state’s statutes prohibiting discrimination.
In his opening remarks, Chavez explained that in Colorado, the civil-rights commission can address civil issues throughout the state, but jurisdiction ends at the boundaries of the tribal Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute land.
“In other words, if a complaint is filed against a business or government procedure on Ute land we have no jurisdiction, but if the complaint is made by a member of the Ute tribe, or any other tribe, on a business or activity outside of the Ute tribal land and on Colorado state land, then the commission has jurisdiction.”
“Just to clarify the jurisdiction issue,’ interjected Commission Chair Diann Rice, “the commission never ever wants to set up barriers to a person wanting to make a complaint. We are able to direct people to the correct jurisdiction if it doesn’t fall under ours.”
Jobin, of the Montelores Human Rights Commission, asked if the state commission could create a “circuit rider” and a scheduled stop in the county.
“There is a big gap in the interfacing between your commission in Denver and our concerns. Every meeting, people come to us with complaints,” said Jobin. “We need a working model to help them and so I am asking again for a process of support that can help the local group be more efficient.”
Commissioner Katina Banks, representing the Denver region, said “Yes, this is an opportunity to learn and dialogue about what we can and can’t do, and I see no reason why that can’t happen.”
Last year the commission settled a complaint against Southwest Memorial Hospital regarding discrimination against Native American people who were turned away from the emergency room there. Jobin asked for an update on the compliance agreed to by the hospital.
Chavez explained that the hospital is in compliance with the request to revamp hospital cultural policies and conduct annual staff cultural training. He assured Jobin that the commission monitors the case.
Jobin asked the commission if they could look into the gag order imposed in the case of Dolores resident Luther Hampson, charged with murdering fellow Dolores resident Jonathan Hayes in Dolores on Jan. 14. His body was discovered by hikers near the town.
“It is a growing concern that the murder of a young man may be a hate crime, and that the judge has placed a gag order on the case so severe that even the parents of the victim cannot get information about the case,” Jobin said.
Chavez explained that a murder is a criminal matter and complaints about it must be filed with the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice, not the Civil Rights Commission.
Local citizen Alec Lukens asked if the commission’s findings are published and was told they are posted in the governor’s annual report, where they can be found by region. The report would be available by the end of October on-line.
Shane Hale, Cortez city manager, said after the Cortez hearing that he’d expected to hear complaints about the town, but didn’t. “I was pleased to hear the compliments for our police department.”
He added, “We treat people with respect in Cortez and it is apparent in a hearing such as this.”
The Cortez hearing was followed by a hearing in Towaoc, which drew a crowd of more than 40. Noting that the hearing location is out of state jurisdiction, the commission explained that the hearing was scheduled on tribal land to make it more convenient for some people to testify.
A number of citizens spoke from the audience. A Navajo woman from Dennehotso, Ariz., described harassment she alleges happened at Peabody Coal, where she works as a truck driver. She told how she felt picked on and emotionally tortured and said for her to drive to Albuquerque to file a complaint was more than she could do.
NNHRC Director Gorman asked to respond to her complaint. He explained the process for filing employment complaints through EEOC and said that the jurisdictional boundaries for the Colorado commission do not cover her complaint.
Another woman, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, had a specific complaint about a housing incident which left her homeless. The commission suggested that she begin at the Housing and Urban Development office in Towaoc, as the Ute Mountain Tribe would be the correct and most efficient place for her to start with the complaint. Alleged discrimination in local schools was brought up by a mother of a junior-high-age child. She said is a well-known fact among Utes that the Cortez school system allows discrimination and harassment of the Ute students.
She described an alleged discriminatory behavior by a teacher, adding, “This is a reason Ute parents take their children out of the Cortez schools system after junior high school and send them to boarding schools away from here, where they will not suffer. Cortez is asking us to vote on a school-bond issue to build a new school, and I ask for what, more discrimination? No, thanks.”
Director Chavez thanked the woman for her testimony and described the nature of a class-action suit that could be brought against a school system on behalf of the students. Part of the problem, he said, is getting people over the worry about local retribution.
“I understand the fear in a small community when it is a collective suit,” he said. “But people have to come forward. There are limitations on what we can do if no people will come forward.”
Art Neskahai, founder of the Southwest Intertribal Voice, a civil-rights watchdog organization in Cortez, spoke about the death of his son earlier in the year. “When I was attending to the burial details at the Cortez cemetery, I asked if we could orient his grave to the north/south because it is my Navajo tradition. All the graves in the cemetery orient east/west. I asked if we could change that for my son and was told it couldn’t be done. To me, it seemed something that that could easily be addressed, but it wasn’t.”
Following Neskahai, Gorman discussed the economic impact of Native peoples. The Navajo people spend million in the 20 border towns surrounding the reservation every year, Gorman said. Cortez may rank in the top five to seven, “yet where do we see the reciprocity? Positions of authority on community boards, high-ranking promotions in businesses and public councils are not filled with Native people.”
According to a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation, the Navajo government spends approximately $64.4 million annually on goods and services to off-reservation businesses. The aggregated personal income on the Navajo Nation is approximately $1.63 billion. An estimated 70 percent of every Navajo dollar or $1.14 billion is spent in border towns annually.
“It is a fundamental truth that the City of Cortez attracts over a hundred million dollars of economic benefit from a greater community which includes places like Red Mesa, Teec Nos Pos, Dennehotso in Arizona, Aneth, Montezuma Creek, Mexican Hat and Blanding in Utah, even as far away as Crownpoint in New Mexico,” Gorman said.
Gorman said the first issue to address in a border town so heavily populated with Navajo people is interpretation and language.
“I am glad to see a certified Navajo language court interpreter in the hearing here. Where is the Ute interpreter? The use of English language in this information is a cover-up. My office tries to break this down, but the reality is we don’t read this material. We meet with the people and say to them, ‘Let me explain to you in Navajo what this means.’”
The third point Gorman made described the impossibility of class action when language is a barrier.
“It is better to communicate in the native language, because more people will testify. There is a strong need for classaction human- and civil-rights suits, but the tight time constraints prevent people who may need to travel long distances on poor roads from following through. Coupled with language, the time frames are a barrier to the process. Who is better to make that point than you?” he asked the commission.
Gorman said if he could do three things to improve the lives of his people, “it would be to educate, educate, educate about the United Nations recognition that all people have basic human rights including clean water, food and sleep – even if they are inebriated.
“My advice to people is to take ownership of your complaint and keep going back. The commissions need your help.”
Parks and rec
Hale did not attend the Towaoc hearing, but later told the Free Press that the city does offer some benefits that help reciprocate for the large economic impact of Navajo revenue. He cited Cortez parks and the recreation center as an example of inclusive reciprocity.
“Providing these public places for people who live in or are visiting in Cortez,” he said, “is something we do without question. For four dollars, any person can use the rec center for the day. It costs more than $4 per use to operate the center, yet the city wants to keep the doors open to anyone wanting to come.
“The parks are the same. The water, infrastructure maintenance and grooming is an investment we are glad to share with the general pubic.”
More information on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and complaint processes and forms can be found at www.dora.state. co.us/civil-rights or at 800-262-4845. The web site, in Spanish and English, provides complaint forms that can be printed, filled out and mailed to the Denver or regional offices.