Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Broken Circle

By Rodney Barker

Farmington, New Mexico is in the northwest corner of the state and lies on the northern border of the Navajo Reservation. Starting out as a farming community because of its location at the confluence of the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers, when oil and coal were discovered in the area it became an energy boom town in the 1950s and 60s, but by the 1970s the boom was starting to fade. The local population, mainly white, were politically conservative and there was a quite a bit of resentment of the Navajos on the reservations who had the advantage of government help in many areas of their lives, like free health care. The Reservation was dry: no alcohol was sold to its citizens. So if a Navajo wanted to have a drink, they headed to the towns bordering the reservation, of which Farmington was one of the larger ones. Unfortunately, alcohol abuse is a major problem in these border towns and it was not uncommon to find Navajos passed out in alleys, abandoned cars, doorways and other areas around the bars in Farmington.
There developed among the teenage boys of Farmington (and probably of the other border towns) the game of rolling drunken Navajos. They would steal their money, jewelry, hats, clothes and sometimes even beat them up. The authorities looked the other way. So eventually one group of boys took it too far. And three Navajos were taken out into the desert north of town, beaten, striped, tortured, set on fire and ultimately killed. The three boys were just young teens, aged about 15 and 16. The Navajos were adults in their 30s and older but unable to defend themselves because they were completely inebriated.
The boys, instead of being tried as adults, were tried as juveniles and sent to reform school for a term of two years or until the age of 21. Naturally the Navajo community was riled at this injustice, resulting in a confrontation and near riot with authorities in Farmington. The United States Commission on Civil Rights eventually investigated and found widespread mistreatment and prejudice against Navajos.
The author came upon this story while stopping briefly in Farmington one day and he ended up in jail when he embroiled himself in the protest. His curiosity piqued and he decided to investigate the incident more fully, trying to understand how a bunch of high school boys could so casually cause the deaths of three helpless men. He also delved into the effects of the murders on the Navajo community.

This was a fascinating story. The author looks at both groups closely, trying to understand how things turned out the way they did. He goes into the history of Farmington and he also follows up on the lives of the three guilty boys, two of whom were admitted murderers (one claimed to have left the scene before the killings). It is a very interesting and heartbreaking story and well worth the read.

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