Battling racism in the Four Corners: Perceptions of prejudice vary widely


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Is Montezuma County a racist place? There seem to be as many opinions about the ugly issue as there are people willing to express them.

Caucasians aren’t likely to feel the sting of prejudice here, so they may comfortably assume it doesn’t exist. And minority people may sometimes misinterpret the unfriendliness of a few for the attitude of a majority.

But while there is disagreement over how widespread prejudice may be, most people admit it’s far from extinct in the Four Corners.

“Like everywhere in the world, there are racial problems here,” said Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane, “but I think it’s a small minority who cause the problems . . . and get all the publicity.

Lane’s department came under fire a year ago in relation to an incident that involved two young white men allegedly harassing visiting black and white college students on Main Street. Tensions over the episode bubbled to the surface again on Sept. 22 at a meeting of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in Cortez.

Lane said when racism results in criminal behavior, the incidents are thoroughly investigated – if they are reported in the first place.

“At the police department, we take it seriously,” Lane said. “We do investigate those things and we do charge when it’s chargeable.

“I think this county is made up of a lot of good people who don’t condone that sort of behavior.”

Mutual antagonism?

The incident that prompted the forum occurred June 21, 2004, when some college students from Dillard University in Louisiana and the University of Colorado at Boulder were allegedly menaced by local white youths flying a Confederate flag on their pickup.

Lane said evidence suggested the initial name-calling was mutual, but the local teenagers then used their pickup to block the sidewalk in front of the students.

“Were those kids scared? You bet they were and I don’t blame them,” he said.

“They were in a foreign part of the country – never been here before – and all of a sudden a pickup with a Confederate flag on it is following you.”

Fortunately, Lane said, police passing by responded and the students were given a ride back to their motel before any combat occurred.

“We happened to be there Johnny-on- the-spot, and there was never any physical contact,” he said.

The Dillard students, who were guests of CU under an exchange program, returned to Boulder the following day and a Cortez detective later went there to interview them.

“In (the detective’s) opinion, the kids were not as adamant about filing charges as the doctor (CU Professor Michael Grant, who had accompanied the students to Cortez) was,” Lane said, but the results of the investigation were turned over to former District Attorney Joe Olt, who ultimately decided not to file any charges.

However, Jim Wilson, the current DA, said at the civil-rights commission meeting that he would review the case.

Lane said no Cortez officer had been investigated or disciplined for mistreating a minority person during his tenure of more than 20 years. He said one cop had been fired for using excessive force, but that incident involved a white victim.

Lane said, as required by the state, his officers undergo diversity training annually. And, because there is a growing Hispanic population in the area, many of whom don’t speak English, his officers attend monthly Spanish classes to better communicate during traffic stops or other contacts.

Mostly white

At the civil-rights forum, attention was called to the fact that there is little Native American representation on the Cortez Police Department. Lane said of the 50 people in the department, two are Native American. Of his 28 officers, none are Native American and just two are female.

At the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, there are two female patrol officers and two Hispanics, according to Sheriff Gerald Wallace, as well as several more Hispanics working in the detention center.

However, like Lane, he’s had no luck in recruiting Native American officers.

Qualified applicants prefer to work for the state patrol or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which pay more, Wallace said. “They can make a ton more money than they would working for us,” he said.

Lane said he had personally encouraged Ute Mountain Utes to apply for patrol-officer positions, but he rarely gets any applications.

“There’s been a couple of people in Towaoc I’ve been interested in and I’ve asked them to come apply,” he said, “but they didn’t show up.”

A lack of diversity exists in positions of leadership around the area. All three Montezuma County commissioners are white males.

Town councils show a better picture. The seven-member Dolores Town Board has four women but no minorities. The Mancos Town Board has two women and two Hispanics; the Cortez City Council, also with seven members, has one woman and two Hispanics.

However, the boards of most of the area’s special districts, which handle everything from sanitation to water to fire departments, are overwhelmingly white and male.

Area school boards, too, are mostly white.

‘A xenophobic society’

But a reluctance by Caucasians to vote for people of color is not necessarily the main factor behind the shortage of minority faces on area boards. For whatever reason, women and minorities don’t often run in the first place.

At the civil-rights forum, Jackie Fisher, president of the Cortez Re-1 School District board, noted that four board seats are open in November and only three people – all incumbents – have opted to run for those slots.

“We would love to have representatives of a culturally diverse population on our board,” she said.

Arthur Neskahi, a Navajo who lives in Cortez, said there aren’t enough Native American role models in schools or government. He said part of the reason may be that Indians aren’t encouraged in school early on and don’t envision themselves in positions of leadership.

“We’re not seeing much progress in education,” he said. “There’s lots of federal dollars, but Native Americans are still scoring low.”

Mancos residents Wendy and Steve Davis, both white, said they have seen racial discrimination in local schools through the eyes of their two adopted children – a Native American daughter and an African-American son.

“When you adopt minority kids, you go into it knowing there are going to be troubles,” Wendy Davis said, “but you minimize them – you know you can overcome any of it and you’ll raise healthy, well-adjusted kids.”

But both children were bullied and denigrated repeatedly at school, she said, and little was done about it.

“One of the hardest parts was getting hit over the head so many times to the fact that it is a racist world . . . and a xenophobic society,” she said. “We have evidence of that in our culture every day.

“And you may say, ‘It’s no worse here than any place,’ but I don’t know if that’s even a valid issue.”

The pecking order

As a substitute teacher for the Mancos School District in the mid-’70s, she also witnessed considerable discrimination against other minority students as well, she said.

“Hispanic kids were tortured, beaten up, harassed at school,” she said. “I think that got better over the years, because (now) there are plenty of Hispanic kids who don’t get beat up.”

And it isn’t always white kids who show prejudice, she noted, explaining that she saw Native Americans treating blacks with contempt.

“Black is even a big deal for Indians to look down on,” she said. “There’s always that pecking order.”

And while her son, who has since graduated, had friends among the students and teachers, the racial incidents made his school days hell, and he transferred to Montezuma-Cortez High School for his junior year, she said.

“At least he could see other faces like his there,” she said.

One of the unfortunate facts about racism is that a single incident can be profoundly upsetting to the victim, even if most other people are treating him without prejudice.

“It certainly wasn’t everybody (harassing her children in school),” Davis said, “but how many does it take to make your life miserable? – especially when the system isn’t supporting you, or they (only) make noises like they are.”

She said she’d tried to get an antibullying program introduced into the Mancos curriculum, but school officials said it would have to be requested by the teaching staff and it never was.

A high-school sport

Steve Davis said in his son’s case, some of the students who tormented him were sons of “local power figures in this valley – the so-called popular kids – so it was hard for his friends to defend him in the face of that.

“(Our son) is a long-distance runner and he’d run all over this valley,” he said, “and a couple of times there were kids flying the Stars and Bars on their pickup and they’d go by him and fake like they were going to run him off the road, call him a nigger and stuff and keep on going.”

But there are hopeful signs, he said.

“I think in general it’s gotten quite a bit better for Native people in Cortez in the 32 years that we’ve lived here,” he said. “When we got here it was still pretty awful.” He said in some cases, Indians were even charged premium prices for some consumer goods.

“I saw that happen,” he said.

He added that violence against Native Americans was not uncommon. “Whacking drunk Indians was (like) a high-school sport in Cortez 30 years ago . . . no matter what anyone tells you.”

‘Don’t know how to work’

Annabelle Talk, director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Employment Rights Office and a tribal member, said at the Sept. 22 forum that violence against drunk Indians continues to this day. But she said Native Americans also experience subtler forms of discrimination on a regular basis, particularly in some shops in Cortez.

“We don’t get the same treatment like a non-Indian might that was in front of you,” she said. “The clerk will say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ to the first person and when it gets to you they’re not friendly at all.”

Such treatment is insulting considering how much business Native Americans do in the city, she said. “We spend almost all our money in Cortez.”

Shopping in Farmington 80 miles away is a much more positive experience, Talk said, maybe because more Native Americans are clerks there.

She said there is also a form of prejudice that assumes Utes are by nature lazier than members of other tribes, such as Navajos.

“I deal with employers doing business on the reservation. Sometimes they say, ‘We have Ute people – they don’t know how to work, but Navajo people do.’ It’s just crazy. Maybe they had one person who didn’t work out and they’ve used that against our tribe for many years.”

As to why Utes don’t often run for the local school board – there is a district slot specifically allocated to represent the Towaoc area – she said they may fear being unwelcome. “If I was to run for the school board I would be afraid of that, not being accepted.”

But Talk acknowledged that Native Americans are sometimes the instigators of prejudice, not just its victims.

“There’s Indians who are prejudiced against other tribes,” she said. “It’s everywhere.”

Dukes of Hazzard?

Tomoé Natori, a Japanese native who has lived in the Four Corners for 15 years, said she would like to see more people of color move to the area. As a member of a group that is barely represented in Southwest Colorado (just 0.2 percent of the population in Montezuma County is Asian, according to 2000 Census Bureau data), she often feels like an outsider. Although Natori said she hasn’t generally been harassed because of her ethnic background, there were isolated incidents where she felt that people used racism as a vehicle to attack her personally.

“Racism is a way to make people feel dominant,” she said.

Simon Martinez, a Hispanic who was recently appointed to fill a vacant seat on the Cortez City Council, said he doesn’t believe the Four Corners area is necessarily more racist than anyplace else.

In regard to the alleged menacing of the black students, he said, it’s possible the young white men didn’t understand that the Confederate flag is a hateful symbol of slavery and racism for blacks.

“They see the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ with the flag on their car – these kids probably don’t realize that flag stood for keeping slavery. They might have thought to themselves, ‘We’re Dukes of Hazzard!’ A lot of these children don’t know history.”

Martinez said he could not recall ever having experienced racial discrimination locally, though he’s lived in Cortez since 1979, except for a few years.

“I may go to a meeting and may be the only Hispanic or the only one of color, but it never bothered me. If it bothered them to see me there, I never really felt it.”

However, he said his father encountered prejudice.

“My father went to school down McElmo (Canyon),” Martinez said. “He could tell some stories. Back in the ’40s, he would get in trouble for speaking Spanish. When I started school, my parents would speak Spanish but when I’d walk in the room they’d stop, so it was total English for me. I wish now that I knew my native language.”

He said there may be more prejudice against Native Americans than against Hispanics. “In the town of Cortez there’s been that division between the Anglos and the Native Americans, more than the Hispanic race,” he said.

Martinez is operations manager at the Ute Mountain Utes’ Farm and Ranch Enterprise. He said people sometimes express surprise that the enterprise employs so many Native Americans. “When I tell people I use 70 tribal members, they say, ‘What, you do?’” They’re even more surprised to hear that tribal members are moving into management.

Prejudice is not the exclusive province of Caucasians, Martinez noted.

“I think everybody has a portion of prejudice in him, whether they know it or not, or realize it or say it,” he stated. “Whether it’s against the homeless – why is that guy in the park like that? – or against some other race – why is that person living there? Everybody does in their own way, but you’ve just got to be able to control it. It’s here. It’s everywhere.”

From October 2005.