Lawless in the Wild West

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The “Wild West” is still a reality out here in Navajoland. Far too often, when violence erupts or a crime is committed, there is no law enforcement to be found. This lack of law-presence means this can be a law-less place.

I’ve talked before about family feuds. Occasionally robbery or other crimes are committed, although most often these are not reported to any authorities. Alcohol is a significant contributor to this still being the “Wild West” – just as it was a hundred years ago. When people get drunk they sometimes get violent. Years ago, if that same drunk could manage to get on his horse, he could get home safely. Today, there are too many injuries and deaths caused by mixing alcohol and cars.

If an emergency occurs and 911 is called, it often takes hours before police (or ambulance) responds. Even once they arrive on the scene, the various officers may spend time arguing over who is responsible to do the paperwork, discussing in whose jurisdiction the event occurred – state, county, federal land, or Navajo lands.

This, of course, does not build confidence or trust in law enforcers and the legal process. Too often, these circumstances lead to more lawlessness in the future.

And then, the past few weekends, there have been sheriff vehicles sitting along the US highway, clocking on quiet Sunday mornings. One might think we would be happy to see evidence of law enforcement.

Cars Sheriff

I might be happy to see THIS sheriff in our part of the country...

I confess, however, that it angers us to see those officers here in our lawless land. We want to get out and ask them,

“Where were you last Friday and Saturday nights when the drunks were a danger to themselves and others on this highway?”

“Where will you be on Monday morning when the semis are barreling down this highway in a constant overwhelming stream, hurrying to start their week?”

“Where will you be next time one of our friends calls 911 for help?”

Some days it is intimidating to realize we live in a lawless corner of the Wild West. Other days we realize our attitudes are changing. We are beginning to join those who question the usefulness of law officers. We are starting to accept the fiercely independent views of those enjoy the freedoms of living in remote areas, even if that comes at the price of infrequent sightings of sheriff deputies…

Living in a “Black Hole”

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We live in a "black hole"

Black holes are part of big adventures. They are a significant plot-devise in sci-fi movies and books. They add an element of uncertainty and tension—will the main characters survive a trip through a black hole? Or can they avoid being sucked into the black hole, to disappear forever?

We are discovering that we live in a “black hole.” Yes, there is plenty of adventure here. But we are trying to avoid getting sucked in to the dark nothingness of working-hard-but-getting-nowhere. Looking back at the history of this location in remote New Mexico, it seems that no matter how many resources are poured into the area, they are absorbed, and families continue to live on the edge of crisis.

There is a significant lack of economic opportunity in the area. Other than a very small number of jobs at the local school and at the few carryout stories nearby, the closest jobs are at least 45 miles away. The distance plus a lack of licenses and reliable transportation means that earning a regular income is difficult for those living here. Expenses are high out here as well. Groceries are quite expensive at the carryout stores and other consumer goods are not available unless one travels “to town,” 45-60 miles away. In addition, a “survival mentality” makes it difficult to develop local jobs with local employees. The current pattern tends to be that people work very hard for a few hours or a few days, just enough to earn what they need in the moment. They often see no need to work more consistently if they have no immediate need for the income.

This area tends to be a challenge for providing or receiving social services. To obtain financial assistance such as food stamps, families are often asked to show up for appointments at offices that are many miles away from here. Again, transportation becomes an issue. Many local people also struggle with the idea of using calendars to keep track of days and weeks. Many friends have failed to show up for appointments and are baffled that they can’t just meet whenever they happen to arrive. Being some place at a specific time on a specific date is not part of their typical cultural patterns. Even showing up for the weekly food pantry hours at a nearby mission can be a challenge!

This is a very remote area, with most people living back on dirt roads. They may live 20 or more miles off the main highway, which often means they lack electricity and running water. These families rarely see a need for gaining those utilities. (If it was important to them, they would just move to town…) On the other hand, hauling water and gathering wood for heating can take a significant amount of time for daily living.

Because of the mix of land ownership in the area (private, Navajo nation, and federal lands), law enforcement can also feel like a “black hole.” Unless there is life-and-death violence involved, there is often little or no response to a call for assistance. Even when officers respond to a call, they often argue over whose jurisdiction it really is, trying to avoid having to do unnecessary paper work. Even when jurisdiction appears to be clear, cases can later be taken over by the federal government or by the Navajo Nation, regardless of who initially took control.

Finally, this area is a “black hole” when it comes to emergency services. If there is a significant injury with a call to 911, it can take over an hour for emergency personnel to arrive because of the distances involved. Local families often have no knowledge of first-aid, so are unable to do much treatment or stabilization before the ambulance or life-flight arrives. Again, remoteness and life choices contribute to a lack of resources in this area.

How can we bring "light" to the darkness here?

We haven’t quite figured out what our response should be to dealing with this “black hole.” We do know that we see no reason to just continue dumping resources (time or money) into this sucking pit. We are looking for ways to make a significant long-term difference. For now, we are talking with a few Navajo friends who are looking for changes. Jill is getting involved with the volunteer fire department 45 miles away to become a first, first-responder for local emergency situations. We are beginning the work to develop a specific plan and financial backing to focus on helping at-risk local young people who rarely finish school.

Pray with us as we look for ways to bring “light” into this area, ways to help individuals and families find healthy ways to stay living in this area, ways to close the “black hole.”