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?”