On the Wrong Side of History: ABQ Journal and Councilor Dan Lewis

The Albuquerque Journal recently published an attack on Indigenous Peoples Day and City Council President Rey Garduño, who spearheaded a Council proclamation to honor the day. In this seriously flawed response, the Journal’s editors believe that the only place for Indigenous peoples’ is at the annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, an event that has had its fair share of controversy for being run by a non-Native and reaping huge profits for the city by selling Indigenous culture.

As a three-year resident of Albuquerque and a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, the polemic against Indigenous peoples from the city’s most widely read newspaper is not only insulting, but it also dangerously promotes the kind of vitriol many of us from Albuquerque’s Indigenous community face.

The alleged “petty diatribe against whites and Hispanics” conveniently erases Monday’s march to celebrate Albuquerque’s first ever Indigenous Peoples Day celebration, which drew a large, diverse crowd of more than a thousand Natives, Hispanics, whites, and non-Natives. The Journal’s editors view this mass appeal, however, as “another minor holiday” on par with National Bird Day and Hammock Day.

How absurd.

The expectation for Indigenous peoples of Albuquerque is: let us consume your culture for entertainment and your “holiday” is meaningless. This message indicates clear unwillingness to humanize Indigenous peoples and furthers the agenda to represent Indigenous peoples as mere objects for entertainment.

The three young men who murdered Diné men Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson last year were also looking for a good time by “Indian rolling,” the violent practice of harassing and killing unsheltered Native peoples in this city. To minimize and make-fun of progressive attempts to humanize Indigenous peoples furthers the genocidal agenda Columbus brought to the Western Hemisphere.

We should expect this kind of dismissal from Anglo-dominated cities. But Albuquerque is the opposite: a “minority-majority” city.

This opportunistic attack represents the minority opinion. Six City Councilors endorsed the Indigenous Peoples Day proclamation, understanding its historical and political importance. Three simply refused to sign.

Councilor Dan Lewis, one of three who refused, initiated the recent censure of Garduño over the question of the proclamation. Lewis’s petty interest in this debate, however, is overshadowed by his own dismissal of Indigenous peoples. During the reading of the proclamation and community response at the Oct. 7 council meeting, Lewis had more important things to tend to on his iPad. He casually sat facing away from the audience with his legs crossed, flicking his finger across the touchscreen, obtusely ignoring his responsibilities as a public servant and ignoring the Indigenous peoples standing before him.

Maybe the Journal condones this offensive behavior? Perhaps it is reflected in their reporters’ continued use of racial slurs, such as the R-word, after they were asked to stop using offensive language by organizers of Monday’s march.

Nevertheless, the Journal has chosen the wrong side of history by siding with Dan Lewis. If these editors had attended the march and listened to the diversity of voices and perspectives, they would have understood this is more than just a holiday and that Indigenous peoples are more than objects of entertainment.

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Native Students, You are the Ones We Prayed for

I’m inspired and moved beyond words by the posts from SD GEARUP students to their Facebook and social media pages about how much the program means to them. I have been reluctant to comment on anything publicly, for fear that anything I say may cause more harm or damage.

Nothing anyone has written in the media I’ve read, however, has been from the perspective of GEARUP students. It breaks my heart to see the adults, the people supposed to protect our children, tear this program apart in the media.

None, apparently, seem concerned with its accomplishments. That’s the state of Native affairs in South Dakota and our own communities. People have come out of the woodwork to attack something they clearly don’t understand.

Our young people face enough challenges, the continued assault on the GEARUP program, a program that has helped thousands, is a clear assault on Native education.

Consider that about 75 percent (or more) of Native high schools students drop out. Amidst the myriad other depressing crises facing Native youth, critics should consider the real perpetrator of these crimes—a system that has allowed this happen, not the people who try to make life a bit more livable for our already persecuted Native youth.

When something negative happens, now they’re interested in GEARUP? That concerns me deeply.

Where were your cameras and insights as we achieved success, demonstrated our brilliance, and made history as Native youth?

Some of us have been doing this for decades now. I ask the many critics of this program, where were twenty years ago? Where were you ten years ago? Where were you this year?

I did not see you working with our children or documenting their achievements, celebrating their successes.

This program isn’t for adults. It’s for Native students, students such as myself. Students from the GEARUP family.

I want to share with you what this program means to me. GEARUP saved my life more than once. I don’t know where I would be without it.

I’m currently finishing my doctoral degree here in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico and I’m from Cohort Five (I’m an old guy!). On a recent visit, I saw a lot of my former students at the University of South Dakota, my alma mater. There were so many Native students and most were GEARUP students. I couldn’t believe it! It made me well up with hope that things are changing. Our young people are on the move!

When I attended USD, there were 17 Native incoming freshmen. I was the only one to graduate with my four year degree. The reason for my success was four years of preparation from GEARUP (at the time it was SKILL) programs. Today, I imagine there are more than just seventeen incoming Native freshmen, and I imagine many will graduate, not just one.

I was thirteen when I first met Stacy Phelps. I had no ambitions to go to college. It never crossed my mind. My first summer away at SKILL, I didn’t call home until the week it was time to pick me up!

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting ready for the rest of my life. I was too busy trying to be “cool” with peers to realize that. I took it for granted, as we do when we’re young. Now I look back and understand what was happening to me.

I grew up in Chamberlain. There weren’t many Natives in my high school, so going to SKILL each summer with Native men and women who had earned bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctoral degrees was nothing short of inspiring.

The program seemed foreign to me, since many of my experiences living in Chamberlain were alienating and feeling like I didn’t belong.

My GEARUP family, however, was one of brilliance, inspiration, and belonging. It always has been. Nothing in the media about GEARUP has yet featured that aspect.

As the years passed, Stacy became a brother to me and our families became close. My mom was a single parent, raising me and my brother, and I had few positive male role models in my life. I learned how to be a respectful, honorable, and responsible young Lakota man from the GEARUP program. I’m almost thirty now, and I just now understand how this program molded me into a leader and an adult. I’m sure many of us feel the same way.

It gave me the capacity to aspire to be something I never thought I could be.

When my mom passed away four years ago, my GEARUP family was there. They took care of me, they always have. Mom had worked for the program after I graduated as a student. Her lasting legacy is the GEARUP planners, “How to Go, How to Pay, How to Stay,” you may love or hate.

All of us older students and graduates send so many prayers and best wishes to GEARUP. When I was a student, there were only 30 of us. Now there’s almost 300! There are thousands of us out there. That gives me hope, and I pray for this program and the success of my former students everyday.

I want to tell Native students, especially you younger ones: You are the ones we’ve been waiting for. When we prayed, we prayed for you. Everyone at GEARUP prayed for you and worked hard to make sure you have something in this world no one can take away from you—your education.

You are the ones that are going to change this world, to make it livable again and make it a place where we have dignified lives as Native people.

You should be proud of yourselves. I am.

Whatever you may read or hear, just remember this program and all its staff have one interest in mind: you—the young people. As older people, we will do our best to make sure you have what’s rightfully yours in this world.

Hecetu Welo!