A local group works to provide Native citizens a home away from home

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This hogan under construction south of Cortez is planned as a family-oriented gathering place for Native residents. It will be operated by Southwest Intertribal Voice, an advocacy nonprofit. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

The longtime vision of a group of Nativerights advocates is about to become reality. Southwest Intertribal Voice, a not-forprofit group that has focused on advocacy and cultural education for more than 15 years, is poised to open the doors to a holistic Native family-oriented gathering place for residents in the region by spring 2015.

Located 5.5 miles south of Cortez on Highway 491, it is a place where all tribes will be welcome, said Art Neskahi, Diné, founder and president of Southwest Intertribal Voice. “From the beginning we have worked with Ute Mountain Ute membership as well as Paiute, Navajo, and any member of an indigenous tribe living in Montezuma County or the region. But our membership has also included a lot of non-Native people who believe in our focus.”

Today many Native people live off-reservation in urban areas where educational and career opportunities are more plentiful than at home. Other Native families relocate to smaller, rural border towns around the reservation, such as Cortez, where steady employment and convenient shopping, banking and schools are easily accessible.

But their cultural quality of life is affected by this move away from family homes and the long distances required to return for family gatherings and ceremonies.

In addition, according to Neskahi, the Christian dominance in school systems, churches and local politics works to disconnect indigenous people from their culture.

Neskahi talks of how his father influenced his family as a Christian convert and fundamentalist Southern Baptist preacher. “Every Sunday we dressed up in white man’s clothes, preached Christianity and converted Native members to our church. I grew up not knowing anything about my own culture. It was forbidden. I had no Native identity.”

Raised to speak only English, Neskahi found the Navajo language and culture foreign to him until 1970, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Fort Carson near Colorado Springs.

At Fort Carson he was asked to represent the Native people on a “Racial Harmony Council” convened in response to racial gang wars taking place in the barracks. He accepted, but admits he didn’t know anything about being Navajo, because it had been proselytized out of him.

The American Indian Movement was a political presence in Denver at the time Neskahi was discharged. “I joined AIM in 1971. The consciousness in the group planted the seeds for my traditional education,” he recalled.

“When I returned to my home in Montezuma County I returned to a search for tradition. Together with my family, which included my father, we realized what we had done and how we had turned away from our culture and our people.”

Beyond pow-wows


Mark Wing, Ute Mountain Ute head of security, presents the Ute cultural point of view to employees with the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, and in-service personnel. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

Thus began a long, arduous search which led to the pow-wow circuit. His father, Allan Neskahi, Jr., was a great public speaker, generous and kind. People trusted him. They began telling him their stories. Consequently, they found many pow-wow participants practicing Native religion and their ceremonies in secret. It became clear to the Neskahis that the Christian church was making Native members fearful, he said. “They were living false lives.”

The family began advocating for Native rights and Native religious freedom, offering their property south of Cortez for use as a pow-wow arena. “My father, now deceased, was a magnanimous personality, the kind of person that made people feel good. As his reputation grew, the annual pow-wow on their family land grew as well and the event became a popular destination for large numbers of Native people.

But Neskahi said what he personally saw in the pow-wow was another tribe’s war dance, from plains tribal culture, not Navajo in origin. “How can we learn and use our Navajo protection for ourselves?” he asked. “I began a deeper learning about my tribe, my family ways, my culture.”

But by 2000 the popularity of the local pow-wow grew to record levels. Natives from all over the U.S. traveled to the location to compete. The county held a hearing for a high-impact permit, which resulted in a requirement that the pow-wow organizers erect a 6-foot chain-link fence around the land and provide security at the entrance. Costs to comply with the new regulations made it difficult to continue and the annual event stopped. The land reverted to private family use until the Neskahis contributed it to the Intertribal Voice group.

Not intended to attract large events now, the 24-acre site is perfectly suited to the small family-oriented cultural-education project and to provide a venue for ceremonies when needed.

Volunteers have built a traditional earthfloor wood hogan for ceremonial use. A shade house will be erected soon for family picnics and a teepee pad is being cleared for Native American Church meetings.

It is an expansion into traditional education and ceremonial opportunity that amplifies the work in human-rights and discrimination cases in Montezuma County the group has conducted since the late 1990s.

‘Not in Our Town’

On Thanksgiving in 2006, two men and one woman, all Native, were beaten in the Cortez city park. It was the last straw, said Neskahi, who explains that the local vernacular for the practice was “rollin’ Indians,” which happens when “Native people with money in their pockets come to town to spend it.”

Twenty-seven years earlier, in 1979, his brother was targeted by a car of white teenagers in Cortez, who rolled their vehicle over him and killed him, said Neskahi.

But his father, still a practicing Christian preacher, told the family to do nothing. “My father told us that God will take care of it. But it continued and when the 2006 Thanksgiving beatings happened I said, ‘Enough!’”

Neskahi, who holds a B.A in community development, convened a series of community dialogue meetings. “We had to address the violence against Indians.”

At that time Neskahai was operating out of a small office in the Cortez Cultural Center on a grant designed to help the organization establish a local access space and fund his work.

About 50 people came – Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo and other tribes were well represented. Many white people joined the meeting. Like a breached dam the frustrations and incidents poured out. Resentments, stories of violence and discrimination were told.

“It was real heated exchanges. Finally, at the end of the first meeting everyone decided to keep talking and work on this. We called it the Cortez Community Dialogue. Over the next year we hired a facilitator and invited the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. We began to raise awareness.”

The dialogues led to a public demonstration in 2007, the Peace and Justice Walk through Cortez. The event ended with a concert in the park. It was called “Discrimination – Not In Our Town.”

“Art’s the real deal,” said Bob Dunn, local musician. “He didn’t come out of an East Coast think tank or a college anthropology program. He’s lived what he advocates, and people respect him – whites and Natives.

“I helped put the concert together that year and book the local band the Lindells at the rally. It’s was a wonderful moment in Cortez history.”

Mutton in the park

Soon after that event, Gene Peck, another founding member of the Intertribal Voice, helped Neskahi begin a series of “Mutton in the Park” banquets. They grilled fresh mutton, made fry bread, roasted corn. The menu attracted local Natives, including people from Ute Mountain Ute Tribe as well as Cherokee, Choctaw and other families living nearby.

Conversations at the “Mutton” events identified the need for a small-scale, familyoriented gathering place, a place of education and ceremony. The Intertribal Voice heard how difficult it is to return home to find diagnosticians and medicine men, gather the necessary parts for ceremonies or even hold one, or find a place to conduct traditional education in the county.

Thus was born the concept of a “traditional place,” on Intertribal Voice land and access to traditional structures identified by local Native people that were needed to conduct the education of their families.

As the project grows on the land, the Southwest Intertribal Voice’s advocacy work and community dialogues continue to influence community policies. The need is always there, said Neskahi. When his son died two years ago he tried to locate a grave site at the Cortez Cemetery aligned north-south, but he found all the graves align east-west “That’s a Christian influence…so the buried person sees the rising Christ in the east,” he said, but in his culture the body is aligned with the head placed to the north.

Although he wasn’t successful with his request in time for his own son’s burial he took his concern to the cemetery director, who requested a change in the grave alignments to accommodate Native burial standards. The cemetery board agreed to set aside a plot of land in the coming addition that aligns the graves north-south.

It seems like a small victory, Neskahi said, but every agreement that can be reached is a step forward.

Cultural awareness and law

The group is currently working on issues related to law enforcement and incarceration. Montezuma County Undersheriff Lynda Carter began knitting together a cultural workshop with Intertribal Voice about six months ago. “The point is that we need to do something to improve cultural awareness in this community,” Carter said.

Although there is a lot of published material on cultural diversity and law enforcement and many guidelines for cultural-awareness training programs, “we wanted to find local presenters that could address the needs of our county,” Carter explained.

In July she and the Intertribal Voice directors held a cultural-awareness training at the sheriff ’s office for working officers, the District Attorney’s office and in-service personnel. Clyde Benally discussed the Navajo cultural point of view while Mark Wing, Ute Mountain Ute security officer, presented on behalf of his tribe. Curriculum ranged from the creation stories of each tribe to law enforcement and interagency arrangements on and off sovereign reservation land.

Wing emphasized that, “In the past when we had a dispute we would go to the council to settle matters, but that was a long time ago. Today we have a tribal law enforcement and a public-safety department and through a recent grant we have established a new facility. We have paramedics, firefighters and a 24/7 EMT.

“The BIA moved into our tribe in 1998. They patrol our streets, but any disputes arising from their presence must be submitted through their regional offices in Albuquerque, N.M., for a decision. This slows down the expression of their [the Ute citizens’] feelings and many people let the violations of their rights go because they can’t get the bureaucratic paperwork done and drive those long distances for appearances in Albuquerque.”

Benally described the philosophical view of “the land” and the language used to express “homelessness” by the white world, an issue that sometimes collides with law enforcement.

“We stand on it,” he explained. “It is beneath our feet. We are connected to the land. We are not homeless. Our feet are on the land. We are home.”

Maps depicting the routes Navajo people may have taken from the north beginning around 1000 A.D. show a path through the Western Slope of Colorado that leads directly to the southwest Four Corners region.

Wing, too, explained that the range of land once occupied by the Ute people included all of Colorado up until the beginning of the 20th century, when the reservations and allotment systems were put in place and the Ute people were split into three tribes, now located in Ignacio, Ft. Duchene and Towaoc.

Carter, who is one-quarter Cheyenne, is licensed to practice law in Colorado and has expertise in laws regarding discrimination, including the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act 2000, which, among other applications, protects the rights of prisoners to practice religion while incarcerated.

“There are things we don’t understand about other cultures and yet we all have to live together. We at the sheriff ’s office recognized the opportunity in this because Gene and Art worked with us to provide the professional level of training our department needs.”

An audience member asked Benally how the recent deaths reported in the Montezuma County Jail affect an inmate incarcerated at the time of the death.

“If the inmate is Navajo he will need a cleansing, which requires a medicine man to enter the jail on behalf of the inmate.” Benally explained. “I served on the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs. Back then we were working with the penal system to make some cultural corrections. We brought up the question of admitting medicine men inside the jail for ceremonial work with Native inmates.”

The prison system at that time required medicine men to open their medicine bundle for a thorough inspection as they entered the prison. But Benally’s argument asked the penal administrators if they inspected a Catholic minister’s incense or accoutrement with as much scrutiny. “Their answer was, ‘Of course not. He is a priest!’”

At the Montezuma County Detention Center, officials try to accommodate the need for a medicine man, Carter said. “We do the best we can if it is requested. Security always come first. We try, but we can’t always do everything we are asked.”

Carter hopes that this type of quality training will be offered seriously to the general public in this community. “It humanizes Native people and we all benefit from that.”

First of its kind

Intertribal Voice is working toward that goal. Neskahi is retiring from his job as a mechanic and hopes to have time to complete the gathering-place grounds soon after. There is a lot to do, but he and Peck and a handful of volunteers are gaining traction. He is seeking grants for Intertribal Voice that can support staff training, salaries and Internet access. In addition, the grounds are ready to reconnect infrastructure such as the water-delivery system that will support clearing the fields for traditional Native gardens. “Intertribal Voice owns three water shares, and that’s enough for our 24-acre location. Someday we will have a flock of sheep and a running path for the Kinaaldá [a Navajo rights-of-passage ceremony for Navajo girls].”

Towns bordering reservation lands do not offer amenities or services specifically tailored to Native needs, designed and operated by Native people, he said. Although Native people are present in census figures, live and work in the community, and contribute to the tax base and overall prosperity, they are kept in a commoditized place, used as marketing icons for community cultural “Indian-ness” and to attract tourism.

“There are a lot of local not-for-profits that benefit from our [Native] presence but they do not see us as modern, professional 21st century people, and send interns to learn from us how to be culturally aware directors and administrators of programs about us,” Neskahi said. “But then the interns go home and the groups send another college graduate to learn from us again instead of hiring us as consultants and directors in our own community.”

Neskahi, Peck, and others in the group would like Intertribal Voice to play a role in shaping a better community by offering a place that serves Native needs, a comfortable “home away from home.” They will continue offering training when groups seek education on Native issues and stay vigilant on local discrimination and justice issues.

The gathering place on their own land is a first for a border town and something to be proud of, Neskahi said. “We do not know of any community outside reservation lands that offers such a service to Native families. We hope the county will be proud of our efforts and contributions and that through our work we can improve the quality of cultural awareness many tourist and local residents seek, while supporting the Native peoples here in Montezuma County.”

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From August 2014.