In his long life, John Redhouse has worn many hats and fought even more battles. But seated in a University of New Mexico auditorium on a recent day, the seasoned Dine’ (Navajo) activist and writer looked laid back as he donned a baseball cap, a pair of shades and a long necklace. With gray whiskers revealing the years, Redhouse shared his formative experiences growing up in the rough town of Farmington bordering the huge Navajo Nation.
He recalled seeing restaurant signs that once read “No Dogs or Indians Allowed.” And he remembered meeting a man with an alcohol addiction, a spirit seemingly lost in the cultural abyss of a border town. But the young Navajo soon discovered that the troubled man’s family had been dispossessed of its land, ejected from Mother Earth by a coal company’s extraction of the black stuff for the neon glittering of the Southwest.
“He was powerless and couldn’t deal with it, and moved to the city and started drinking,”Redhouse said. “That was the only way he could deal with it, and that profoundly affected me.”
A scholar, writer and organizer, Redhouse was honored at an event last month sponsored by the UNM Kiva Club, Native American Studies, the Department of American Studies and other university and community departments and organizations.
Organizers billed the day-long gathering as “Indigenous Liberation and the Grounds of Decolonization: A Symposium to Honor the Life and Work of John Redhouse.”
In a lengthy session, Redhouse delved into the spiritual inspirations, history and legacies of late 20th century Native American activism. His accounts of pivotal times were drawn out in a question-and-answer format with Jennifer Denetdale, UNM associate professor of American Studies.
A founder of Indians Against Exploitation and the Coaliton for Navajo Liberation, Redhouse spoke at some length about how Native activism arose in response to racist power structures and practices in the towns of Gallup and Farmington bordering the Navajo Nation.
By the late 1960s, long-simmering community resentments over outsider control of the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial and the exploitation of sacred Native American culture for the benefit of non-Indians boiled over in protest and organizing.
According to Redhouse, Raymond Nakai, who was Navajo tribal chairman from 1963-1971, attempted to convince lawmakers in the New Mexico state capitol of Santa Fe to yank funding from the annual event. As a young man, Redhouse said he became involved in a “second wave” of protest against the Gallup Ceremonial, which soon became a national issue in Indian Country and evoked mass demonstrations that culminated in confrontations with the police and the arrests of demonstrators.
North of Gallup, serious conflicts were likewise brewing in the border town of Farmington. For years, Native Americans had been the victims of hate crimes by whites, and the violence hit a crisis stage when 10 Navajo men were found mutilated and murdered around Gallup and Farmington during 1973 and 1974. Three non-Indian teens from Farmington were arrested for three of killings and sentenced to two years in the New Mexico Boy’s School.
The crimes set off a powerful protest movement, and more confrontations with police, including a Farmington march of 4,000 people that Redhouse called the “largest demonstration of Indians” at the time.
Reflecting on the Farmington struggle, the veteran activist credited the movement for forcing some “changes,” as well as gaining the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which issued a historic report in 1975.
“(Farmington) was reprimanded for the state of interracial relations: a failure on the part of elected officials to assume responsibility for connecting the different populations in Farmington, police prejudice, lack of access to health care, minority under-representation in government and business, and economic discrimination were all reported. Farmington had gained the unofficial nickname of ‘the Selma, Alabama of the Southwest.’”
Thirty years later, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission asserted that important progress had been made in interracial relations and power equations in Farmington, but found short-comings in political representation, business, hiring and lending practices, and the teaching of Navajo culture and values in the nearby Shiprock school system, according to the Harvard review.
An impact far beyond U.S. borders
Sharing the stage with Redhouse, UNM Professor Jennifer Denetdale, who is also a member of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said racism still persists in the northwestern New Mexico oil and gas town.
“Just the past couple of years, we’ve had more hate crimes in Farmington, particularly the one in which the disabled man was branded with a swastika,” Denetdale said. Farmington, she insisted, “isn’t really acknowledging these issues.”
Putting the movements in Gallup and Farmington in a broad perspective, Redhouse added that the New Mexico protests were part of a national campaign waged by Native American activists against racism in reservation border towns across the West, including Flagstaff, Ariz.; Custer, S.D.; and Gordon, Neb.
A former associate director of the National Indian Youth Council in Albuquerque, Redhouse said violence against Native Americans in Gordon contributed to the armed occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., by Lakota traditionals and the American Indian Movement (AIM) in February 1973.
He challenged a common media impression of the historic occupation and government siege as an event instigated by the late AIM leader Russell Means and the group’s co-founder Dennis Banks. Redhouse said it was really older traditional women like Ellen Moves Camp who made the decision to take a stand, demanding that the men act. “So they obeyed,” he said.
Nearly a century of land dispossession, mass murder and bureaucratic double-dealing preceded the occupation, Redhouse explained, playing out in the theft of the sacred Black Hills, the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 and Washington’s imposition of an “alien” tribal government. Wounded Knee II, as the 1973 occupation became known, was really an unequal confrontation between the military forces of the Nixon administration and the lightly-armed occupiers, according to Redhouse.
“But they were willing to fight and die,” he said of the Wounded Knee II resisters. “It was the spirits of the ancestors and the souls of the children, the future generations.”
The activism of Redhouse and his colleagues had an impact far beyond U.S. borders. From 1987 to 1990, Redhouse worked with the Tonantzin Land Insitute, an Albuquerque-based organization of Native American and Chicano activists dedicated to preserving Southwestern land and water rights upheld by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war between the U.S. and Mexico.
Redhouse said Tonantzin investigated violations of the 1848 treaty, and sponsored a 1990 conference in Tortguas, N.M., helping build momentum for the 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance hemispheric campaign which, regionally, included a 1992 protest march in Santa Fe. He credited the San Francisco-based International Indian Treaty Council, founded at a 1974 U.S. conference attended by 3,000 people, as an earlier, instrumental event in gaining the presence of indigenous people on the world stage, an achievement recognized in the 2007 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.
“It’s a start, a move in the right direction,” is how Redhouse assessed the UN declaration. Native peoples, the seasoned activist added, are hoping the proclamation will evolve into “substantive” and “enforceable” laws.
‘You were born into life to do this work’
The continuity between Native American activism then and now was at the core of the UNM symposium, which featured the participation of scholars like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and emerging leaders such as Lane Bird Bear of the Kiva Club, the UNM Native American student organization which Redhouse helped build in the early 1970s, a time the veteran organizer characterized as the “Golden Age” of Native American student activism.
Serving as the moderator of the exchange between Denetdale and Redhouse, Bird Bear told the audience how he came from North Dakota to UNM, where he found a hospitable place in the Kiva Club to channel his concerns about issues at home and locally. Not unlike the exploitation that motivated Redhouse more than four decades ago, the young activist briefly recounted how the Kiva Club staged a demonstration this school year against the outside appropriation of Native American cultural symbols.
Striking an optimistic and humorous tone, Redhouse urged his listeners to stay active.
“I started as an angry young man and now I’m an angry old man,” Redhouse said to a burst of laughter. “It’s part of your responsibility. You were born into life to do this work,” he continued. “We were moved by the spirits of our ancestors to do this.”
Flanking Redhouse on one side of the auditorium was a banner that read: “Protect Mt. Taylor: No Uranium Mining on Sacred Lands.” The message symbolized Redhouse’s path-breaking research on energy exploitation and environmental degradation of Southwestern native lands.
Working with the American Indian Environmental Council and others in the late 1970s, the author of a book on the Navajo-Hopi land dispute advanced the theory of Native lands as energy colonies and national sacrifice zones. His writings and organizing against contamination from uranium and coal mining were foundations for the environmental justice movement that emerged in the 1980s and the climate justice movement of the 21st century.
(For a digitally graphic depiction of the energy exploitation and related pollution on or near Navajo, Zuni, Laguna and Acoma lands exposed by Redhouse decades ago, readers can visit SacredTrustNM.org. They’re you’ll also find an updated picture of the issue’s magnitude.)
Redhouse penned the introduction for the 1979 book Washi’Chu: The Continuing Indian Wars, by Bruce Johansen and Roberto Maestas. The writer began his prologue of a chronicle of terror, tears and tenacity by explaining the translation of Washi’Chu, a Lakota word meaning, “the greedy one who takes the fat,” and a denotation that came to signify a “strange race that not only took what it thought it needed, but also took the rest…”
In his introduction, Redhouse summarized and critiqued the historical chronology dating from the Spanish conquest of the Americas for gold and silver, a legacy that bristles today in the numerous battles between indigenous communities and Canadian and other foreign mining companies throughout Latin America; the Carter administration’s energy and human rights policies; the white treaty abrogation movement of the 1970s; and U.S. Supreme Court decisions adverse to “Indian self-determination.”
Redhouse ended his introduction with words from the Ghost Dance revival that swept Lakota territory prior to the Seventh Cavalry’s massacre of 300 men, women and children at Wounded Knee in 1890.
During the previous two decades, the Lakota had seen their homeland overrun by outsiders ripping up the earth for dust and stones; the invasion of a brash white general and his doomed men; the murders of leaders Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull; the white man’s slaughter of indigenous cultural sustenance, the buffalo, almost to the point of extinction; and the loss of the sacred Black Hills. Quoted by Redhouse, the words from the Ghost Dance went:
The whites are crazy!
The whites are crazy!
Frontera NorteSur is a U.S.-Mexico border news service run by the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University. Find it online here.