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Maxwell column: Journey through a place of shame

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.

Travel is one of the best ways to grasp the essence of our nation, to learn our human and physical history and to experience the political and social currents of our various cultures.

In short, travel has the potential to show our greatness and our warts.

For the last six years, I have been driving to Montana by way of Interstate 10 through the Southwest desert. I am always captivated by the many American Indian reservations I see in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

On this trip, as I walked the streets of Flagstaff, shopped downtown and dined in locally owned restaurants, I had my first close-up encounters with Navajos. Most of them, younger men in particular, self-segregated, staying at the edges of whatever was happening. I was not surprised. As a South Floridian, I have seen the same kind of self-segregation with the Seminole and Miccosukee in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Flagstaff has a population of about 67,000, and about 6,000 are Navajos. Home to Northern Arizona University, it is one of the nation's most educated cities. Navajos are the least educated both here and in the rest of the state. The consequences are stark and enduring.

Still, I was surprised that this beautiful city has a disproportionately high crime rate. A police official and a Navajo defense attorney told me that most crimes, including theft, trespassing, loitering and assaults, are committed by Navajos. One obvious reason, the attorney said, is that alcohol is prohibited on Navajo Nation land, so those who drink come to town to indulge. Crime follows many of them.

But crime on the reservation is more serious. According to FBI reports, the Navajo Nation — stretching from parts of Arizona to parts of Utah — is one of the most violent reservations in the United States. It has more rapes and murders than many large cities.

Unlike their big city counterparts, tribal officials lack the resources, including manpower, equipment and expertise, to combat crime in an area the size of West Virginia. Federal agents and Navajo police officers often have to travel up to 700 miles in a day to make an arrest or conduct an investigation. In addition to a tribal court system that is traditionally lenient, there is never enough money to build enough jails to hold most offenders for more than eight hours. Even when an offender is convicted of a violent crime, the sentence cannot be more than one year under tribal law.

Like the country's other reservations, the Navajo Nation is managed by a tribal government in cooperation with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. And like most other reservations, the Navajo Nation is plagued by, among other problems, crushing poverty, substance abuse, low education levels, low employment, inferior health care services, substandard housing and corruption in high places.

Each time I drive the four or more hours through Navajo land, I feel the isolation and see the sprawling desolation. Miles and miles of barren land bake in the sun, and jagged mountaintops, the color of coal, remind me of scenes out of a Mad Max dystopia. Rundown mobile homes dot the valleys and gulches, and beat-up trucks stand beside rusty sheds. Strangely, there are few planted flowers and vegetable gardens. I was told that barely anything of "real value grows here."

This is a place of abjection, the results of our long history of brutalizing American Indians. From the beginning, we took their land, killing as many of them as we could. Those we did not slaughter, we conquered. Those we conquered, we dispatched to reservations, landscape we had little or no use for. We shipped their children off to boarding schools and tried to break their spirit and erase their languages. We even Anglicized the names of many.

Today, most of us never travel to these places of eternal shame. We pretend they do not exist. Well, they do exist. They are the product of our making. We all should take a trip to see our creations.

Maxwell column: Journey through a place of shame 06/28/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 7:55pm]

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