“At the University of New Mexico (UNM), our students over there, we went around campus asking if they are registered Navajo voters and they said “no.” And I asked why, and they said, “because nothing will change.” But we are working on it because we can make a change. I am positive and I believe we will, in time.” – Leona Menard
My name is Leona Menard and I live here in Gallup. I live in two places actually; I live in Coyote Canyon and I live near Gallup here. I am the president for the First Navajo Voter’s Rights Coalition. I advocate for voter’s rights. I work with people that have brain injuries. I help people who need help in our community. I was raised here in Gallup, off the reservation and on the reservation in Coyote Canyon. I go back-and-forth, but home is Coyote Canyon.
I was born in the hospital in Indian Health Services in 1961. I was one of 5 babies that were first born there. My Dad was part Chicatawa from Minnesota and we moved here. My Dad worked at the coal mine here in Window Rock. He’s a coal miner. And we left 1977 to Minnesota and opened a store. My Mom and the family made jewelry. My Mom was a weaver. I finished high school there and then I went to Tucson, and then I went to Portland, Oregon. I lived in Portland, Oregon for 20 years. I moved back here in 2000.
We are a bordertown because of the Arizona border with New Mexico. Windrock is right here. On this side by Sanders, Arizona, so we are considered a bordertown. Flagstaff would be considered out of the reservation. That’s why we call it a bordertown, because it’s off the Navajo reservation. Zuni has their reservation right at the end. On Saturday and Sunday, especially at the end of the month, your population here in Gallup is probably 40,000 and in the weekends it’s 500,000. Because everybody comes into town on the weekends.
I got involved with voter rights when there was a voting issue. One of our candidates who wanted to be the Navajo Nation’s President, there was language issues between Navajo and English. The laws stated that you have to talk fluent Navajo to be the president of the nation. In our case, there is many non-speaking Navajos in different generations. Like myself, I am Navajo, I understand Navajo, but I do not speak it fluently. It’s difficult to adopt the language later in life, but you can do it. When the election office said [the candidate] was disqualified, after people had voted for him, that’s when a lot of Navajo citizens got together and we protested. We ended up changing the law. Now the law has been changed because of the Navajo people that voted to change that law. Now, we can elect a Navajo Nation president that doesn’t speak fluent Navajo.
On top of it all, there was some corruption with one of our judges of the Navajo Nation, and we voted to get him out also. We petitioned for him to be removed. That’s how the First Navajo Voter’s Rights originally got started. It started with Arizona and New Mexico, and then we branched out here in New Mexico and they are still there. We are the 1st in Gallup serving this part of New Mexico and the reservation in the eastern agency and northern agencies.
It’s a complex voting situation. For example when voting comes up, we can vote in our chapter house, but we have to be registered in two different places under McKinley County. When you go to vote at the chapter house, they have a list and you need to be on that list, if you’re not on that list you cannot vote. A lot of people say that they are registered, but sometimes because of the lack of communication from state and the Navajo nation… the Navajo Nation system is old school. They are still paper trail, not computer, you can’t do things online, everything has to be done by paper. For a lot of people that’s how it is hard to get registered and get voting. The chapter house does have registration where you can get registered and they send people to McKinley County to get people registered to vote. The system in that way works. But like I said, there’s two different places you have to register. In between, it’s not an easy process. I know some people go to vote for the Navajo elections, but they might be missing with the state and they have to go refile.
Our goal is to coordinate something with the state, a new system. When you go to the MVD they ask you if you’re registered to vote, and you usually can just register right there. What I am thinking is that if you are Navajo and you have a CIB (Certificate of Indian Blood), maybe you can join the systems together, because you have all your documents. Especially the youth, they need all those documents to prove they live on the reservation. To me, that would cut this gap that we have between the state and the Navajo Nation to be able to vote. If we can get our Navajo Nation council delegates to give us some money to upgrade our election process, that’s what we need, that’s what the people want; to have a secured online registration that can be easier to send documents through a secured system. It’s a complex system. It’s sad that we have 250,000 people that are out there and only half are registered voters because of this complex system. It’s suppressing our voting, and we need our people to come forward. Now people have lost interest.
Through the years, I believe the election cycle has been neglecting of the people to get to the poles. Lack of education. Lack of laws that are being passed. Lack of things that need to be voted on by the people. Just recently we did start a petition, wanting to change those laws where the people get their authority passed. Right now the council delegates have all the power to change the laws and do what they please, but sometimes it doesn’t fit the communities on the Navajo reservation. Our chapter houses are not accessible to our people to attend meetings. People have just lost interest because they see that our Navajo Nation government does their own thing instead of helping the people. The breakdown in communication I think is a really big issue, especially with our youth, our college students that are Navajo and have a census number. We are not keeping up with the times as far as the culture of our youth.
I believe in what I have experienced, and that is the intimidation of the language barrier. You go to a chapter meeting, and they present everything in Navajo…and when the youth go, they don’t accommodate to their language. So they are left behind, they are left out. And that’s a big issue. I think with the youth, especially college students, they want to get involved, but it seems like the Navajo Nation government and the delegates… they say they want to keep their language and traditions, but I don’t think they should shun those who are not fluent in the language. And this hurts our youth to get involved. In raising four children on my own, the biggest complaint, is that they feel unwanted by our own government and our own system. At the University of New Mexico (UNM), our students over there, we went around campus asking if they are registered Navajo voters and they said “no.” And I asked why, and they said, “because nothing will change.” But we are working on it because we can make a change. I am positive and I believe we will, in time.
The high schools have a culture class where you can learn the Navajo language. They are pushing elementary schools in our area to make sure they have the culture setting and the language studied. UNM has language courses, I have taken some myself. There is a lot out there to learn the language. I hope that my college students who are involved in the government that they go forward and they start learning. It’s a hard language, because a lot of it is in the throat and in the nasal.
I grew up in Coyote Canyon which is about 30 miles from here on the reservation. As a child we had horses, and we entertained ourselves a lot as children. I had 4 other siblings, and we lived what I called “a rugged res life.” We herded sheep, we had horses, we had chickens, a little ranch. The good times was going up to the trading post and riding our horses up there. It’s what we called “the sand dunes.” It was kind of like a big ol’ pond. We would all dive and jump into the water. It was pretty cool. We went barefoot and ran around just being kids. That’s the best part I remember of living out there. I went to Chocasi High School. We all were involved in a lot of sports. My oldest brother was a guitar player. We would sit around and listen to him bang his guitar. My mother would sign in Navajo. She would teach us a lot of the ways. We would gather together with family. We would have all the cousins and we all use to play with the ball and get out and hit the baseball. It was really fun. We knew how to entertain ourselves without technology. We rarely even watched tv [laughter].
My mother was raised in a place called Winter Camp. She was a weaver and she would dye the different wool. She would make sand painted rugs. She has pieces in museums. She has one in Santa Fe. She has one in Milwuake, Wisconsin. She has one in Minneapolis. My Mom and Dad would go and do shows. That’s how we kind of traveled to Minnesota. She would get up on stage and sing in Navajo all the way up to New York for different museums. She would be invited to auditoriums. They use to call her “The Turquoise Lady.” Her name was Louise Henry. Her birth name meant “going away from the battle” [in Navajo]. We had a store in Rochester, Minnesota. We were raised between the White world, I always say, and in the Navajo world. I had both. I had both cultures I had to adopt to as a teenager. My three brothers are still silversmith’s. My sister and I are advocates for the people.
When we first went to Minnesota it was hard growing up in a whole different world. It was hard, there was a lot of racism. But once we adapted and got through it, it was just as much fun. We had precious times and memories of the people there. Here on Navajo, my brother’s and I, we also felt racism because we weren’t full Navajo. My Dad is a lighter Chipawa and English, a big tall blue eyed man. And my Mom a little small Navajo woman [laughter]. We had a lot of racism back in the 70s. Growing up there was a lot of differences when looking at the different cultures. We as a family adapt to it, because of what our parents taught us. As far as people toward us, there was a lot going on when growing up always. A lot of people see me and they don’t think I am Navajo, they say “look at that white girl.” I am Navajo in my heart and in my being. I was raised here. It’s still here today [racism]. I don’t see it much here on the White side, but in my Navajo side dealing what we have been dealing with in the last five years, I see a lot of that.
I do ceremonies for my family. I was raised with it. We do prayers and bring the medicine man to look over us and protect us. We pray for each other, we burn our cedar. We do the traditional things that my mother taught me. The belief is there, we believe in our holy people that watch over us. I raised them [children] to treat the earth with respect.
A Future in Gallup
We have a lot of people with traumatic brain injuries. They go from the ages of 16 on to elders that underdiagnosed. One individual that I work with and help, he got into a car accident four years ago. UNM just released him from the hospital. He had TBI, which is Traumatic Brain Injury. When he came home, his family started experiencing a lot of difficulty with him because they didn’t know how to live with his changes. We do outreach to those people who are underdiagnosed. We try to find them support groups. We have a support group that meets here every other Monday for those with issues of TBI. We still need a lot of support from one hospital to another. Hopefully we can find a way to transfer people and not let them get lost in the system. Before you know it, people are self-medicating which leads to high alcoholism and drug addiction in our town. We have a really huge problem with that in Gallup because we are highly underfunded for behavioral health.
I send people there [Gallup Cultural Center]. I go there to meet with people to kind of introduce them to Gallup. We have our coalition meetings there. If we need to get together for some function, we advocate for being there. When you walk in there you get a “gentle sense feeling.” I always feel like it’s home there. Maybe it’s all the little pictures [laughter]. It’s a really good place to go. It’s nice to know those little places in Gallup.
Economic development is what I hope for the future of Gallup. We have 47% unemployment. Our children, our new generation, they have to leave to find work. If not, they stay here and live in poverty. We have such talent here in this town, and we are kind of stuck in a hole that we can’t get out of unless we get people to start developing. The Navajo Nation, we need to build homes in what I call the bordertown. Build businesses so people can grow and build an economy here. Get people off poverty, and get people to be proud and work. Our suicide rate is the highest in the state!
Gallup is amazing! The art, the culture of all the different ethnicities there. It’s a small town but it’s quaint. You look into the art and you just say “wow, these people are so talented.” I wish we could get more out there in mainstream society. The positive part is that we have so many talented people here in town in one place. The downside of it is that we are not getting it out there. I think economically that would help out the people so much if we can just get the word out that this is just such a dynamite place to come to if you want hands-on-art.
Economic development is needed and that could help our youth in having hope. Our men, often from the Navajo Nation, plus here in Gallup in our border-town, they need jobs. We need homes. We need homes built. We need to give them opportunity. I told you earlier that I left for 20 years and moved back, I was surprised how non-growth of our community. I left for 20 years and it was exactly the same! No jobs, that’s why my Mom and Dad left to Minnesota for work.
We have so many graduates coming out of UNM, tech colleges, Crowne Point, everywhere… and they want to work. They don’t want to live the way their parents lived. We as a society, we need to offer them some opportunities. Our leaders need to find somehow, some way… and I believe that we can do that. I believe that with the funds that the Navajo Nation goes through; millions and millions of dollars, we should be building factories. We should be building things for our own people to live. Structural businesses, art businesses, arts and crafts businesses, resorts. There is so much things to do for young people! We just have that wall that we can’t break through it. I feel bad because our biggest concern is our youth with the suicide rate that we have within McKinley County and the Navajo reservation. It’s increasing no matter what programs we put in. We still have our 23 or 25 year olds committing suicide because they have no hope. If you don’t have opportunity or hope, what are they suppose to do? That’s the heartache of this town. I see it everyday with our youth. With kids I use to take to football practice, kids I use to go to their basketball games, they want to work! We need to change that! Part of that change is getting involved with the political agendas and vote. Vote! For change. I said my new campaign is going to be “Care to Vote.” Care and then vote.