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Strength, Resilience and Tradition

Native Family Battles Desert, Poverty for Survival

New America Media, Feature//Video, Words:Kenneth Kim//Video: Cliff Parker//Photos by Jun Seo Posted: Jun 07, 2008

Editor's Note: Just outside a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, a young man with a troubled past returns home to reconnect with ancient family and tribal valuesvalues that are shared by participants at a gathering of 19 tribes sponsored by the Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign . NAM's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Kenneth Kim is a NAM reporter based in Los Angeles.

WHITE HORSE, N.M. They live in two tumbledown shacks without basic plumbing or telephone service; barn fowl and dogs wander the yard strewn with broken-down cars and old furniture. None of the six adults in the family has a steady job, and the whole family often depends on $637 a month in government assistance. Two children take a daily dose of medicine for epilepsy and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Sometimes, with no money left, they go days without food.

The life of 19-year-old Roderick Thomas and his extended Navajo family of 12 in White Horse, New Mexicoa wide-open and desolate town about 250 miles northwest of Albuquerqueis plagued with unemployment, poverty and disease, problems many American Indians on and off of reservations experience.

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But these miseries fail to break them. As brutal winds and a blazing sun form deserts and rocks into eloquent shapes, the harsh conditions of their lives have forced them to cling more fiercely to their family and culture, proving the resilience of both.

These aspects of American Indian life were echoed in a town hall meeting of about 100 representatives of 19 Pueblo tribes and other Native Americans from across New Mexico who convened at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque as part of the Marguerite Casey Foundations Equal Voice for Americas Families campaign. One of more than 40 such town halls held across the nation, the meeting was designed to contribute to national platform of family issues leading up to the 2008 election.

At the meetingconvened under the themes of strength, resilience and traditionparticipants arrived at a consensus that their culture and self-determination hold the cure to social and economic injustices.

After a full day of discussion, in which participants asked each other for permission to speak, and used the Indigenous Leaders Interactive System (a computer program aimed at highlighting traditional tribal consensus building processes, developed by Americans for Indian Opportunity), they concluded that identifying my creator or spirituality would induce them to act in order to defeat the forces confining them to poverty-stricken reservations or the status of demeaned people.

The consensus demonstrated the Native Americans emphasis on the presence of gods and spirits in nature and extended family, and the desire to help themselves. Although their troubles have a long history and diverse causes, the day's tone also reflected a mistrust of a federal government that has failed to meet its legal responsibility, if not moral obligation.

When evicting Native Americans from their ancestral grounds, the United States promised housing, education, decent health care and a better future through more than 300 treaties. But those treaties were not kept.

The results are evident in New Mexico today.

According to the 2005 American Community Survey, New Mexicos 205,167 American Indians have an average per capita income of only $11,363, just half of the state average, and an unemployment rate of 52 percent. Close to 30 percent of these Indians live in poverty, compared to 14 percent of the total population.

In addition to low levels of academic achievement, rates of adolescent smoking, drinking and driving, drug use, and obesity are high among the Indian people. Indian teenagers are twice as likely as the national average to commit suicide, and 70 percent of those teenage suicides involve alcohol.

At the town hall meeting, participants agreed to tackle these issues collectively.

Dont leave change to legislative people, BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) or IHS (Indian Health Service). Dont just adapt to change. Let us be the drivers of change," Joe Garcia, President of the National Congress of American Indians, said passionately. The answers lying in your communities and your children and family and elders.

Back in White Horse on the morning of Mother's Day, with a grandchild standing next to him, 65-year-old Robert Perry began chanting in his native tongue while stretching his arms upward and slowly turning to the east, south, west and east again. Then he lowered his body to touch the dusty ground in front of his mud and concrete hut. After lifting up his aging body, he swept the grandchilds body with a fan made of eagle feathers, as if cleansing invisible dirt. He then blew an eagle boom. Sharp but soothing sounds of the Navajo flute soon circled in the big southwestern sky over vast open land walled in the distance by sedimentary layers of cliff.

The morning ritual elicited emotion from Roderick, a former UPS worker with a troubled youth behind him.

It reminds me who I am and who we are, and gives a meaning to life, said Roderick, who had returned home from Monterey, Calif. a couple of months earlier to look after and be with the family.

Its to bring the Creators blessing into the family, said Perry, looking at Roderick with eyes filled with paternal love.

In fact, Roderick never knew his father, who ran off when he was a baby. In seventh grade, Roderick started drinking and using drugs. Angry at the poverty so pervasive in his family and community, his temper erupted like a volcano. He often got into fights, once even assaulting a police officer. As the fighting went on, the scars on his knuckles became rougher and thicker, shaping his hands into those of a street fighter.

After attending the nearest elementary school, about 20 miles from his home, he went to a high school 30 miles away, getting up at four in the morning to hitch a ride from a passing car. The fighting and drug use continued, and he was, by his own account, expelled 11 times.

When rebellion couldnt fulfill his emptiness, he wrote. Reading a poem from one of dozens of notebooks filled with writings, Roderick was choked with emotion. We sometimes go three or four days without food. Starving, my little brothers and sisters cry. The teenager, who is not yet of legal age to buy a bottle of beer, turned his head away to hide the moisture in his eyes.

It was practically a miracle when church members arranged for Roderick to travel to Monterey, Calif. for a chance hed never had. On his first trip on an airplane, he wrote on a U.S. Airways napkin, Its time to rise up in the airLord, I hope you hear me. In Monterey, he attended a school to obtain his GED and worked in a UPS store, making $12 an hour. He was able to save $5,000, which he sent home to his mother and grandparents.

But Roderick had to put his California dream on hold when his uncle got into a serious car accident and the family in White Horse needed him at home.

Ill be the person who my brothers and sisters can look up to," he says, explaining why he gave up a dream life that had included two weeks on a yacht on the ocean, courtesy of a UPS manager.

Later, before a Mothers Day lunch of salad with ranch dressing, potatoes, charcoal breads and meats, his grandmother Rena, looking older than her 56 years, offered a blessing. The childrens hungry eyes were on the food, but they remained silent.

Because the dining table was taken by guests, the rest of the family scattered around in whatever space they could find in the tiny kitchen of the one-bedroom hut that Rodericks mother, stepfather and five half-siblings share.

I want them to go to college. I want them to have a good job and not to be around here, said Rodericks mother, Yolanda Burbank, 39, watching her children eat after the guests had filled their stomachs.

At the same time, I want to them to stick with the family and preserve our traditions and values."

"Theyre the most important thing in life, dont you think? asked the Navajo mother.

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