Side profile of Elsie Werito, 84, a member of the To'hajiilee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, waits in line to cast her ballot at the Desiderio Center November 2, 2004 in To'hajiilee, New Mexico.
TO'HAJIILEE, NM - NOVEMBER 2: Elsie Werito, 84, a member of the To'hajiilee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, waits in line to cast her ballot at the Desiderio Center November 2, 2004 in To'hajiilee, New Mexico. Werito said she has been voting all her life and has never missed an election. (Photo by Rick Scibelli/Getty Images)

This article was originally published by The PUBLIC.

In 1974 three Navajo men — Herman Dodge Benally, John Earl Harvey, and David Ignacio — were brutally murdered on the outskirts of Farmington, New Mexico by three white teenagers. In response to the murders, many advocacy organizations — including the University of New Mexico Kiva Club, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and the NAACP — mobilized in Farmington. The high schoolers responsible for the murders were sentenced to a few years at the state reformatory after closed-door proceedings. Many in the Farmington community felt this punishment wasn’t sufficient and multiple marches and protests ensued.

Following a march in May 1974, a list of demands was presented to the Farmington mayor which addressed, “basic community problems affecting Indians, and calls for increased responsiveness by elected officials to these needs.”

While the clash between Navajos and whites in the community continued to rage, the city administration held open sessions and discussions for everyone in the community — Navajos shared their sweeping and ubiquitous experiences of discrimination. Whether it was high school students excluded from extracurricular activities, blue-collar workers harassed by their white employers, or individuals who were refused service at restaurants, the common themes of bigotry and racism riddled their everyday lives.

Navajo Protest March in Farmington, New Mexico — 1974, by Bob Fitch

The abuse, torture, and murder of Native Americans was so common in fact, it had its own moniker — Indian Rolling. “The only exceptional thing about these brutal murders,” David Correia writes in La Jicarita, is how common they are in New Mexico.”

“We didn’t see the murders as the act of three crazy kids. We saw it as a part of a whole racist picture. For years it has been almost a sport, a sort of sick, perverted tradition among Anglo youth of Farmington High School, to go into the Indian section of town and physically assault and rob elderly and sometimes intoxicated Navajo men and women of whatever possession they had, for no apparent reason, other than that they were Indians.” — John Redhouse, American Indian activist

The discussions and rallies following the murders continued throughout the year, and in July 1975 a report was issued by the New Mexico Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. The 171-page report provided a comprehensive timeline of the events that took place in 1974 and concluded with three key findings and recommendations.

Its first — and arguably most important finding? Public officials within Farmington had failed to “assume a sense of active responsibility for promoting positive and productive relationships among the diverse segments of the population which they serve, and that there is little awareness from the general population on the unique relationship the city holds with Navajo people on the reservation.”

Children lead Navajo protest march in Farmington — by Bob Fitch, 1974

Thirty years later, the New Mexico State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a follow-up report on civil rights for Native Americans in Farmington. Then-president of Shiprock Chapter, Duane Yazzie, noted that there was progress and improvement in the general social climate for Navajo people in Farmington:

“Yes, there continues to be periodic problems but, for the most part, the efforts of the public servants, including law enforcement, the courts, the business community, and the major employers in the regions, there has been considerable advancement.”

However, the same report also included other testimony explaining that there had actually been little progress since the 1970s, considering the lack of Native American representation in positions of civic leadership:

“You’ve asked if change — you asked if change has happened since the early 1970s? Consider that question by looking at the numbers. Each community’s pillars are those that are elected as well as those that serve in the government structure. If one looks at those positions in the local government, you will find very few, if any, Native Americans. It doesn’t matter if you look at the county, the city, or even local institutions. You will still find very few Native Americans in high-level, decision-making positions. After 30 years, you would think the local governments would have made great progress in this area.”

This history is particularly familiar to me (this is Jordan talking) as my mother experienced discrimination as a girl growing up Navajo in Farmington. She shared stories of her childhood — like heading to the candy shop to buy chocolate-covered strawberries and being asked, ‘are you sure you can afford that?’ And she would reply, ‘ Yes, actually, and I’ll have a few more!’ Or when my parents were a young couple — if my mother entered a restaurant first, she would be ignored or dismissed until my white father entered behind her.

This discrimination is a reality I acknowledge, and one of the many reasons why I returned home to work for my Tribe. Generations of Navajo families lived these stories and history, and many continue to live and work in the area today.

History of the native vote in New Mexico

Despite the enactment of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 — which granted citizenship to all Native Americans — many states denied Natives the right to vote for decades after. In New Mexico, Natives were denied this right based upon the “Indians not taxed” provision in the state constitution. This prohibition was challenged by World War II veteran Miguel Trujillo in Trujillo v. Garley.

The court ruled in 1948 and found the “Indians not taxed” provision invalid. In 1962 the New Mexico Supreme Court in Montoya v. Bollack found that Navajos living on the reservation were eligible to vote. Federal legislation in the form of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 further supported the Native right to vote in New Mexico by outlawing racial discrimination in voting.

To date, Natives in New Mexico and across the United States continue to face barriers to voting. One additional layer to the Native right to vote is the process of redistricting that takes place every ten years. The way that district lines are drawn can drastically affect the voting power of a community. In San Juan County, New Mexico, redistricting is paid close attention.

Voter suppression is all too common in regions with large populations of Native American voters, and New Mexico and San Juan County prove to be no different, especially in light of Farmington’s well-documented history of discrimination and violence against Native American residents.

Recent shifts in demographics compound this history; in the past ten years, the County’s population has decreased — driven by the loss of Non-Hispanic White residents — while during that same period, the population of Native American residents, particularly Navajo residents, has increased. Today, the Native American population is the majority demographic in San Juan County.

As the Board of Commissioners plays a leading role in the County’s government — it serves as the legislative body determining critical issues from budgeting for county services and roads, to taxing, issuing of bonds, and zoning — one would hope the government would be representative of its constituents that comprise its community.

But Non-Hispanic White voters control the election outcomes in four out of the five Board of Commissioner districts — despite the Native American Voting Age Population (NAVAP) comprising more than 40% of the County’s residents.

On December 21, 2021, the Board of Commissioners adopted a redistricting plan which systematically dilutes the ability of Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native voters to elect candidates of their choice. The adopted plan prevents the Native American Voting Age Population (NAVAP) from effectively voting for their preferred candidates in District 2 — which includes Farmington — by packing over 80% of the NAVAP into District 1.

In the past ten years, District 1 is the only District where the NAVAP has been able to elect their candidate of choice. Before the Board adopted this plan, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC) submitted a redistricting map for the Board’s consideration. The NNHRC’s plan evenly distributed the NAVAP among Districts 1 and 2, with approximately 63% NAVAP in each district. This plan would have allowed Navajo voters to effectively elect a candidate of their choice in both District 1 and District 2. Instead, the Board ignored NNHRC’s plan, and adopted the current—challenged—plan, which packed the majority of the NAVAP into District 1, while diluting the NAVAP in District 2.

The complaint — filed by the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, ACLU of New Mexico, UCLA Voting Rights Project, and DLA Piper on behalf of the Navajo Nation, the NNHRC, and individual Navajo citizens — argues this packing and dilution by the San Juan County Board of Commissioners is purposeful—unlawful under the Voting Rights Act—and will have a detrimental cost for Native American voters in San Juan County.

The ability to have our voices heard through voting impacts our society at various levels. While the highest levels of voter turnout occur during federal or state elections, county elections often have just as large of an impact on our communities. Redistricting is one of many ways that effective voting by marginalized populations can be attacked and undermined, which can result in government leadership that does not represent or protect those populations, perpetuating discrimination.

In San Juan County, New Mexico, Native Americans must have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Guaranteeing this ensures equitable representation and empowers the strength of the Native vote.