State Civil Rights Commission to hold local hearings

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The Colorado Civil Rights Commission will hold two hearings in Montezuma County on Thursday, Oct. 25, to give residents of the region an opportunity to air complaints related to civil and human rights. The meetings are scheduled in Cortez at the First National Bank community room on Thursday, Oct. 25, 1-3 p.m. and in Towaoc at the Ute Mountain Casino from 6-8. Refreshments will be served.

The purpose of the hearings is to assess whether the civil rights of minority groups are being violated in the Cortez/ Montezuma County area.

According to a press release from the Montelores Human Rights Commission, “We had hoped that our MHR Coalition could do this periodically, and are grateful for the help from the Colorado State Commission.”

The Montelores Human Rights Coalition is an outgrowth of the Southwest Intertribal Voice begun by Art Neskahi, who serves as chairman of both groups “After Neskahi organized Southwest Intertribal Voice, it became clear to him that civil rights are not related only to race relations,” said Jobin, “but to LGBT issues, work discriminations, the handicapped – access to human rights extend to everyone. The Montelores Human Rights Commission was founded from that consciousness.”

Both groups focus on intertribal relations, but the Southwest Intertribal Voice is also a voice for cultural and language preservation. “We do a lot of educating in the schools as well,” said Gene Peck, a member of SIV, “about anything that impacts our Native community. We try to go between agencies, steer some civil-rights issues in the direction of advocacy, even bring issues into the schools, and educate our citizens on civil- and human-rights issues.”

John Dulles, former regional director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Denver, is assisting the Colorado Civil Rights Commission as they convene to learn more about what’s happening in the community and inform people of available resources. He will be attending the meetings in October.

During his service to the U.S. Commission he worked with many Native communities on racial issues, including the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana and the Tohono O’odham in Arizona.

“There are international parameters to these issues,” said Dulles, “and they’re not getting the media scrutiny they deserve.”

“Dulles has faithfully and continuously supported our work in Cortez, which he continues to do even after retirement,” said Bill Jobin, secretary of the Montelores Human Rights Commission. “We are lucky to have such a good friend in Cortez.”

Although the CCRC is an enforcement agency, Jobin explained, “We always hope a hearing such as this result in negotiations rather than litigation.”

Two such hearings were held in Cortez during the past decade. “They were full blown hearings at which the public was invited to come forward and bring complaints,” Jobin said. “But afterward nothing happened. It fizzled because there was no provision for follow-through.”

Legal action is the next step after a testimony. The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission has ramped up its presence in all the border towns surrounding the reservation. It takes complaints seriously and is professionally involved in negotiations and the litigation necessary to resolve issues related to the Navajo people.

Representatives of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission will attend both meetings. “When people testify at the hearings we encourage them to streamline their message to a result they would like to see,” said Rachelle Todea, public information officer. “Typically citizen recommendations become recommendations in the reports.”

A suit over redistricting brought by NNHRC against the San Juan County Commissioners in Utah resulted in legal action and hearings upheld in district court. The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission is currently interviewing legal firms in Salt Lake City to continue the litigation after lead attorney Brian Barnard passed away of natural causes suddenly in August 2012.

One-third of gross revenues in Montezuma County are contributed by Native American people living in Montezuma County and in nearby tribal nations, according to Jobin.

A greater proportion of Native family total income is spent in border towns because there is little shopping available on the reservations.

Peck said that 26 percent of Cortez school enrollment is now Native American. “The Navajo population in Cortez alone is increasing twice as much as any other group in the community.”

The state commission is billing the hearings as an informal discussion, but, according to Jobin, “there are always complaints – racial profiling is one of the most common. Recently there was a Ute man who, after being a loyal customer with a local Cortez business for decades, was told the business wouldn’t extend credit to him because two Navajo girls didn’t pay their bills.”

The Southwest Intertribal Voice and Montelores Human Rights Commission are encouraging people to appear at the hearings with their complaints.

Local groups hope to develop an advocacy office based in Cortez. “Hearing the complaints is part of the process, but follow-through gets more complex,” said Jobin. “Dulles thinks we need a full-time civil-rights advocate in Cortez, with financial support for the office, and is researching groups who might support it.”

For more information contact the secretary of the Montelores Human Rights Commission at coloradovalley@earthlink.net.

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From October 2012.