The occupation of the Santa Fe Plaza to mark Indigenous Peoples Day is centuries in the making.

For decades, activists and data have screamed that systemic racism in New Mexico produces disproportionately worse health and education outcomes for the state’s Indigenous population.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated those longstanding disparities, activists on the Plaza pointed to the smallpox epidemics and oppressive boarding school educations as reminders that the tragedies of 2020 aren’t exactly a new phenomena for Indigenous communities.

“Here in our tribal communities, we are still living in Third World communities in terms of medicine and health care and access to education and broadband,” state Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said Sunday in a phone interview. “All of our historically disenfranchised communities are still exactly that.”

Sunday was the second of what activists are calling a three-day occupation of the Plaza in protest of a controversial obelisk, which is dedicated to “heroes” who died in battle with “savage Indians.” Mayor Alan Webber said in June he intended to remove the monument.

The protesters’ signs call attention to broader systemic issues represented by the obelisk.

This summer, Native Americans had a COVID-19 mortality rate 18 times higher than Hispanics and 23 times higher than whites, according to the state Department of Health. Their hospitalization rate was also 15 times higher than Hispanics and over 36 times higher than whites. And while New Mexico’s 23 tribes represent about 11 percent of its population, Native Americans have accounted for around 53 percent of the state’s total cases.

In recent months, major news outlets from both coasts have reported on the pandemic on the Navajo Nation.

“For the national news coverage to be sharing information about how we’re being impacted by COVID, that helps people to understand that we’re still here, you know. Sort of at least lets people know we exist,” said Henry Natonabah, a recent Santa Fe Indian School graduate studying nursing at Northeastern University in Boston who grew up on the Navajo Nation outside Naschitti.

“What I’ve seen here on the East Coast is not a lot of people know about Native Americans. They don’t know we’re not the savages we’re depicted as,” Natonabah said. “They all have this basic Western history, but I can tell them I know my history that goes back to my great-great-grandfather fighting the U.S. government from stealing our land. That’s my history.”

Lente added that the pandemic has robbed multigenerational Pueblo communities of many of their elders who knew the history best.

“We know exactly who is ill and who has passed away. The pandemic touches entire communities like that,” Lente said. “And when we lose any one individual, it’s like the library burned down.”

The pandemic also has widened gaps in education for Indigenous students.

According to a report by the University of New Mexico’s Native American Budget & Policy Institute, 71 percent of Native Americans reported having access to the web at home or at work that would allow them to submit their census information online, compared to 90 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

The lack of internet “has led many families to attempt to submit class assignments in restaurant parking lots many miles from their homes,” the report reads. “More pressing is the inability of Native American communities to access telehealth services in remote areas of the state, including the Navajo Nation, where the virus has had the most devastating impact in the state.”

Earlier this year, Lente introduced a handful of bills to address education inequality, including $650,000 for a Native college readiness program; $19.8 million for public colleges and universities to develop programs for at-risk students; and $16.2 million for tribal libraries, internet infrastructure and early childhood education.

They were among some 40 bills addressing Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, a landmark education lawsuit in which a state district judge ruled New Mexico has denied Native American students their constitutional right to an education. When the session ended in February, state legislators passed just four of those 40 bills.

Then in March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham shocked education advocates statewide when she moved to dismiss the lawsuit, which ruled the state has failed in its constitutional mandate to provide English-language learners and special-education, Native American and low-income students a sufficient education that prepares them for college and career.

“Academically, the schools available on the reservation won’t get you prepared for college,” Natonabah said. “To prepare yourself for higher education, you need to find a way to leave.”

Lente says he will be back in the Legislature this winter pushing to fund education for the state’s Indigenous students.

“I’m left wondering once again,” Lente said. “When people with authority talk about wanting to do something, but then do something completely opposite, where is their real truth at?”

(14) comments

Steve Gonzales

Sandia Pueblo's casino had a net win of about $180 million in 2019, and population of only 427 at the last census. Local property taxes, which fund education, are not levied on reservation or trust lands. There is no state income tax on money earned on a reservation. Native Americans do not pay sales taxes on transactions occurring on a reservation. (see If having lower taxes and a monopoly on casinos is racism, then sign me up.

Steve Martinez

To the author of this article, the word SAVAGES was chiseled off the monument in the early 1970's.

Nicoletta Munroe

The land in Santa Fe was once a pueblo. The fact is reported in the historic novel Great River published in 1954. Today is Indigenous Peoples day, a reminder that Native American people antecede the colonists here, thus deserve a greater voice in the discussion of the Santa Fe Plaza obelisk. There is a federal suit concerning the fact that the current mayor attempted to remove the obelisk in June damaging the capstone. A constructive discussion of the Santa Fe Plaza obelisk will involve a democratic process that is transparent. Pressure does not necessarily yield the best result. Why not convene a university lecture series about the obelisk with doctoral presentations?

Mike Johnson

" ...a reminder that Native American people antecede (sic) the colonists here, thus deserve a greater voice in the discussion of the Santa Fe Plaza obelisk." Please explain that irrational logic to me.

Emily Koyama

Well, any "discussion" is over. A mob just tore down the obelisk this afternoon.

Mike Johnson

Happy Columbus Day!

Jennifer Johnson

The overt racism in the first 3 posts of this thread are astounding. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth is exactly that. The oppression and injustice of and towards indigenous peoples is relentless. In addition to the points mentioned in the article, no electricity, no running water, no internet access, know that the fracking industry is poisoning the air and little water that they do have and ruining the few roads across the Navajo Nation. The abuse and exploitation have never stopped.

When groups such as those on the Plaza this weekend do draw attention to what it happening, they are silenced. Once again, last night, Webber arrives in the presence of the police and under the cover of darkness to threaten demonstrators and throw them off the O’gha Po’oge land. White men will continue to exploit and abuse native people until we put a stop to it.

It is a sad irony that our greatest hope to get us out of the havoc that climate change is causing us is through the wisdom and practices of our Native elders. Those whose knowledge of how to live in harmony with the earth and to repair the immense damage of capitalism, are being wiped out by the consequences of poverty and Covid. It is past time to pay attention and to honor the indigenous peoples.

Webber can start by honoring his word. Luján Grisham can start by honoring Yazzie/Martinez v State of NM and ending all fracking.

David Ford

Make it 4 as "Dr" Johnson just chimed in with his.

Well stated post Jennifer. [thumbup]

Ezekiel America

Affirmative Action is government sponsored, henceforth, the only real systemic racism in the 21sr Century.

Richard Reinders

Maybe it is time that the indigenous population should develop self reliance and control 100% of their destiny. The US Government should sign the land over to them and let them make all of their own decisions. By the Dept of Interior acting as their father it is still saying they can not make their own decisions with out white mans help that in its self is racism.

Mark Stahl

The land you are talking about is called North America.

Emily Koyama

Better turn over your house and hightail it back to Europe, then, Mark.

Richard Reinders

Each reservation is held in trust by the DOI for the Pueblo’s and tribes and yes it is in North America but it is defined. This is the land I speak about. It’s time to assimilate .

Brad Doubles

Native American tribal issues, problems and conditions are just that. ...their problems. Time to take your casino $ and figure out how to make your soverign nations productive. Yes, you were conquered by the US Government and forced off your land into reservations. That was over 100 years ago. In those years since, what have you done to better yourselves? Until you realize that it is up to YOU to make your lives better, you will have no different result than millions of other Americans that think their poor lot in life is the fault or responsibility of others....

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