Navajo tribe signs memo with Farmington officials

By Tim Korte
Farmington, New Mexico (AP) November 2010

The Navajo Nation signed a historic government-to-government agreement with Farmington city officials last week, with both sides calling it a positive step toward improving race relations in a community where friction has existed for decades.

The agreement was sealed after an hourlong blessing ceremony by a Navajo medicine man at City Hall, and it makes Farmington the third community on traditional Navajo lands but outside the boundaries of the reservation to reach such an agreement with the tribe.

The latest accord also comes against the backdrop of federal hate-crimes charges filed last week against three white men from Farmington who are accused of branding a swastika on the arm of a mentally disabled Navajo man last spring.

"Being the mere human beings we are, we have many shortcomings," said Navajo Human Rights Commission chairman Duane "Chili" Yazzie. "I'd like to think the human relationship problems we've had over the years have really subsided. Back in the '60s and '70s, the relationships were aggravated by physical violence and even death."

Mayor Tommy Roberts said the largely symbolic agreement won't eliminate prejudice in Farmington or on the Navajo Nation, but it shows the community's commitment to continue reaching for solutions.

He said the final document took a year to produce and told a gathering of tribal and city officials that he was asked several times why the negotiations were so important.

"It's a very simple answer," Roberts said. "It's important because we're neighbors. We're connected politically. We're connected socially. We're connected economically. We must recognize that as neighbors, we must treat one another with respect and tolerance."

Farmington, a predominantly white community of about 45,000 residents, is a center for oil and natural gas production as well as an economic hub, drawing shoppers from southwestern Colorado and across the Navajo lands of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

Earlier this year, the Navajo Human Rights Commission signed similar memoranda with the New Mexico towns of Grants and Gallup. Drafts are in the works for Aztec and Bloomfield.

Next year, commissioners plan to pursue agreements in Arizona for Flagstaff, Holbrook, Winslow and Page, along with Cortez, Colo.

Racial tensions in Farmington peaked in May 1974, when the beaten and burned bodies of three Navajo men were found north of town. Three white high school students were linked to the crime and sent to reform school, outraging the Navajo community and prompting protests in town.

"We are wanting to move forward and improve our relationship," Roberts said.

Yazzie agreed, saying race relations have improved dramatically in Farmington since the 1970s and the city has made important steps, such as establishment of a community relations commission to review racial complaints and provide education and training.

Yazzie said he has experienced racism in Farmington but cautioned that he knows some Navajos who are prejudiced toward whites. In either case, he said those who discriminate are in the minority and urged people to remember what they have in common.

"We have had good memories, good relationships, strong relationships through the years," Yazzie said.

Lauren Bernally-Long, the commission policy analyst who drafted the agreement, said tribal officials still have concerns about Farmington.

She said it's difficult to obtain a police report and suggested first responders could benefit from training to better recognize crimes involving Navajo victims, such as in the swastika branding.

The commission's executive director, Leonard Gorman, also said it was important to include language in the agreement that recognizes tragedies have been inflicted on Navajos.

"We wanted to assure that while all those events were not the best events to reflect a progressive society, we still need to reflect on them regardless of how bad they may have been," Gorman said.