New Mexico Supremes to hear case October 23
September 7th, 2013
The New Mexico Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide once and for all whether same-sex marriage should be legal statewide after several counties recently began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, prompting a legal challenge.
Stepping into an intensifying debate over same-sex marriage in a state where such unions are neither expressly recognized nor prohibited by law, the high court set a hearing for Oct. 23 to consider a request from all 33 counties statewide to settle the matter.
New Mexico GOP reps. file lawsuit opposing equality
September 4th, 2013
As Jim told you, it’s now a total of eight equality counties in New Mexico. And cuz I like visuals, here’s the map.
Last Friday, as promised, several GOP legislators joined Sen. Bill Sharer in suing the county clerk of Doña Ana County. Although he had claimed support from two dozen fellow Republican legislators, only 7 were part of the original filing. Yesterday another 8 joined.
On Tuesday, as opponents of gay marriage sought to stall momentum toward allowing gay marriage across the state, eight Republican lawmakers joined in a lawsuit filed on Friday by seven other Republican lawmakers against the Doña Ana clerk.
“It’s really a separation of powers issues,” said Rep. Paul Bandy, who Tuesday joined the case filed in district court. “I don’t think the county clerk has the power to make this decision.”
I find it fascinating how far the dialog has shifted on this issue in just a few short years. Missing (other than on Sen. Sharers site of delusional rants) are the appeals to morality and God. Even tradition seems to have dropped from public discussion, leaving Bandy to try and sell his opposition as separation of powers.
And, as of today, only 15 of the GOP’s 47 New Mexico lawmakers have attached their name. That isn’t to say that more – or maybe all – of them will do so, but it does suggest that Sharer is finding that fewer Republicans than he predicted have rushed to add their name to what is likely to be the wrong side of history.
Meanwhile, all of the state’s county clerks have appealed the decision by Judge Malatt to require Bernalillo County Clerk to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and requested that it be heard by the Supreme Court. This does not reflect their political views; some support equality, some do not. But they are all joining the appeal so as to have a state-wide uniform ruling that (since they are all appellants) impacts all counties the same way. County clerks like that sort of thing.
Two More New Mexico Counties Join the Marriage Equality Bandwaggon
September 4th, 2013
Silver City, New Mexico, located in the southwestern corner of the state, is another of those charming former mining communities turned gay-friendly arts destinations which are so delightfully common in parts of New Mexico and Arizona. This morning, Grant County Grant County Clerk Robert Zamarripa said his office will comply with a court order to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples beginning on Monday.
In a separate case, Los Alamos County Clerk Sharon Stover had announced that she won’t comply with a judge’s order handed down last week that she grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Stover went to court today to ask that the lawsuit put on hold until entire question of marriage equality is addressed by the state Supreme Court. The judge refused her request, and shortly after, a lesbian couple became the first to obtain a marriage license from Los Alamos County.
Grant and Los Alamos Counties join Taos, San Miguel (Las Vegas), Valencia (Albuquerque suburbs), Bernalillo (Albuquerque), Santa Fe and Doña Ana (Las Cruces) Counties in providing marriage equality. Altogether, marriage equality is available in eight of New Mexico’s twenty-three counties, covering nearly 59% of the state’s population.
Taos makes six
August 28th, 2013
Taos County on Tuesday became the sixth and latest county in New Mexico to allow marriage between same-sex couples.
State District Judge Jeff McElroy ruled Tuesday that Taos County Clerk Anna Martinez must issue a gay couple a marriage license or present a legal argument why she should not.
But we do finally have some word from the GOP legislators fleshing out their plans. They’ve gone from unspecified vague to specifically vague.
Paul Becht, the Albuquerque lawyer for the GOP legislators, said it’s uncertain when and where their lawsuit will be filed. With more counties starting to issue licenses, Becht said, he’s trying to determine where best to file a lawsuit “so we’re not getting scattered results all over the place.”
History lessons from Sen. Sharer
August 27th, 2013
On the website of Senator William Sharer – New Mexico’s equality opponent in chief – the Farmington Republican shares his views on marriage and history.
Archeology shows the importance of the family unit working together as the first and most basic unit of human cooperation. There is overwhelming evidence that the unit of ‘mom, dad and children’ has been encouraged from the earliest pre-written record. The union between one man and one woman was the first and most lasting definition of marriage.
Alexander the Great’s – View of Marriage
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) married a Bactrian woman – modern day Afghanistan. Alexander may have engaged in homosexual activity, but he married a woman.
He directed his officers to stop “whoring” around and find a local woman to marry.
“It is only through blood relations that hatred and war will end”. In other words, Alexander the Great thought that marriage was about creating and raising the next generation.
This is the reason for Marriage –
The creation and raising of children who have the best chance to grow to be peaceful, responsible citizens.
Well… not exactly. Actually Alexander didn’t “marry a woman”. He married three, Roxana (the Bactrian woman he references), Stateira (daughter of Darius III) and Parysatis (daughter of Artaxerxes III). And though he did father a child, it wasn’t born until after Alexander’s death.
Using Sharer’s example of Alexander, perhaps we can deduce that he really meant to say that “There is overwhelming evidence that the unit of ‘mom, dad, fetus, and dad’s two other wives’ has been encouraged from the earliest pre-written record.”
How do truly stupid people get elected?
San Miguel and Valencia Counties make five
August 27th, 2013
Marriage is breaking out all over New Mexico (kob.com)
Following the actions of three other counties in the state, the Valencia and San Miguel County clerks have decided to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
San Miguel County Clerk Melanie Rivera confirmed she ordered new licenses from the printer, but said she is now issuing “Spouse and Spouse” licenses that have been manually altered starting on Tuesday.
According to Valencia County Clerk Peggy Carabajal, paper stock for the licenses have already been ordered. They plan to change software to print “Spouse and Spouse” instead of “Bride and Groom” as soon as the paper arrives tomorrow morning.
As best I can find, Sen. William Sharer (R – Farmington) has not yet filed his lawsuit to stop the progression of equality in the state. Maybe he’s so busy amending the filing to add new counties that he hasn’t time to get it to court.
But he’d best get his hurry-up boots on if he plans on doing so while he still has a chance; once a movement reaches certain momentum it can be hard to stop.
New Mexico counties grow to three
August 26th, 2013
The number of New Mexico counties offering marriage equality has grown to three. (Star Tribune)
An Albuquerque judge on Monday ordered the clerk of New Mexico’s most populous county to join two other counties in the state in issuing marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples.
State District Judge Alan Malott ruled that New Mexico’s constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
(The ruling covered both Santa Fe County and Bernalillo County, home of Albuquerque. However Santa Fe has been complying with a separate judicial ruling requiring equality since Friday).
Predictably, Sen. Bill Sharer, who is leading a group of GOP lawmakers to fight the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, was furious. (koat)
“It is up the New Mexico State Legislature, with the consent of the Governor of New Mexico, to make laws and for county clerks and district court judges to abide by them. They do not make the laws. It is inexplicable how a district court just today discovered a new definition of marriage in our laws, when our marriage law has not been changed in over a century,” Sharer said in a statement.
But there’s more than a little irony in Sharer’s statement. Despite what he pretends, the New Mexico State Legislature has no law requiring that clerks discriminate against same-sex couples. There is no “new definition”. The marriage law in New Mexico is not defined to require a man and a woman.
It is true that until fairly recently no one in New Mexico fathomed same-sex couples marrying. But what do you do when an unexpected situation seeks to avail itself of civil law?
Sharer seems to hold an opinion about the role of government that flies in the face of his party’s rhetoric. While most Republicans would claim to believe that freedom is held by the people and that if ‘there ain’t no law against it’ then citizens are free to pursue happiness as they wish. Sharer, on the other hand, seems to believe that the government holds all rights and doles out freedoms according to its whim. He seems to be claiming that unless he and his fellow legislators specifically say you can do something, then it’s against the law.
UPDATE: Doña Ana, Sante Fe, and Bernalillo Counties are the states three most populated. Between them, nearly half of the state’s residents live in a county in which equality is being honored.
NM GOP Lawmakers Announce Lawsuit To Stop Marriages
August 23rd, 2013
When Doña Ana County, New Mexico, Clerk Lynn Ellins began issuing licenses to same-sex couples in Las Cruces on Wednesday, the state’s Attorney General Gary King responded by saying that he would not intervene to halt the Doña Ana County marriages. But a group of Republican lawmakers have now vowed to pursue a legal challenge. Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington) announced that he would file a lawsuit by the end of the week:
“It has to do with a county clerk cannot make law. That is the Legislature’s job,” said Sharer, who sponsored a constitutional amendment in 2011 to define marriage as between a man and woman.
He said more than two dozen GOP lawmakers have agreed to join the lawsuit. It likely will be filed with the state Supreme Court, but Sharer said lawyers were trying to decide the best legal strategy.
NM judge orders Santa Fe to issue same sex marriage licenses
August 23rd, 2013
District Judge Sarah Singleton issued the order late Thursday to Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar in a lawsuit filed by two Santa Fe men. It represents the first time a New Mexico judge has ruled that gay and lesbian couples can be married, said state Rep. Brian Egolf, a lawyer representing the couple.
Singleton said Salazar must grant the marriage licenses or appear in court Sept. 26 to tell her why that shouldn’t occur. Salazar didn’t immediately return a telephone call from The Associated Press.
Should Salazar comply, Santa Fe County will join Doña Ana County, where the County Clerk yesterday began issuing licenses to same sex couples.
New Mexico AG Won’t Intervene In Doña Ana County Marriages
August 22nd, 2013
As of the close of business yesterday, Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins issued 42 marriage licenses to same-sex couples after announcing that he would begin issuing licenses yesterday morning. State Attorney General Gary King, who had urged county clerks to wait until the courts rule on whether New Mexico’s prohibition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, says that he will not file legal action to stop the issuing of marriage licenses in Las Cruces:
King has said he believes the state Supreme Court would rule state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples are unconstitutional. Established marriage laws, King said, violate a provision in the New Mexico Constitution that promises equal protection in law, regardless of gender.
…“We feel like our position that the laws aren’t constitutional presents a barrier from us bringing action in that suit,” King said.
“… Here’s a case where we have an obligation to defend the laws of the state of New Mexico to the extent that they’re not unconstitutional, but I have a higher obligation to defend the Constitution,” he said.
Gov. Susana Martinez (R), who opposes marriage equality, has repeated her call for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage be put before the voters.
Meanwhile, couples in Las Cruces are celebrating:
Orlando-Antonio Jimenez, 42, of La Mesa said he was watching TV news and learned about Ellins’ decision. He and his partner, K. Grey Carrillo, 46, were soon at the county government center, applying for their license to marry. Jimenez called it a “natural progression to our 13 years together.”
“This is a great day for the state of New Mexico,” he said. “We have a family that now is recognized by the state of New Mexico.”
Added Carrillo: “It’s a great day for equality all the way around.”
Jimenez and Carrillo said they have plans for a large wedding. It likely will happen between three and six months from now, they said.
Las Cruces, New Mexico, Begins Issuing Same-Sex Marriage Licenses
August 21st, 2013
Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins has been mulling the move since June, when New Mexico Attorney General Gary King issued an opinion saying that the state’s practice of banning same-sex marraige was likely unconstitutional, particularly since the wording of the law itself is gender neutral. At the time, King advised County Clerks to continue to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples until the courts could weigh in on the issue. He then refused to defend the law before the state Supreme Court, which last Friday sent the matter down to local courts to review. That’s when Ellins decided to act:
“That means it could be many months or years before the matter is resolved,” Ellins said. “In the meantime, I am mindful that I took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the State of New Mexico as Doña Ana County Clerk. I am an attorney, and I have read the AG’s opinion, and I find it to be sound. After careful review of New Mexico’s laws it is clear that the state’s marriage statutes are gender neutral and do not expressly prohibit Doña Ana County from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples. Any further denial of marriage licenses to these couples violates the United States and New Mexico Constitution and the New Mexico Human Rights Act. Doña Ana County is upholding New Mexico law by issuing these marriage licenses, and I see no reason to make committed couples in Doña Ana County wait another minute to marry.”
ACLU Announces Three Marriage Lawsuits
July 9th, 2013
Fresh off its victory in Windsor v. U.S. which struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, the ACLU’s is filing three more lawsuits, in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia. In Whitewood v. Corbett, the ACLU is challenging Pennsylvania’s statute which bans same-sex marriage. In Fisher-Borne v. Smith, the ACLU will amend its lawsuit seeking adoption rights to include the right to marriage. In the Virginia case, the ACLU and Lambda Legal are still in the planning stages, with plaintiffs and precise details of the case still being worked out. They expect to file that lawsuit later this summer.
Meanwhile, the ACLU and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have filed a motion with the New Mexico Supreme Court, asking it to order state officials to allow same-sex couples to marry. State law is currently silent on the question. Other lawsuits are working their way through Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey and Michigan.
As icebergs begin to melt
June 7th, 2013
We are winning. Sometimes we see huge signs and hear fanfare and know that we’ve accomplished another victory. And sometimes the signs of our success are small and subtle and even a bit amusing.
Consider, for example Susana Martinez, Governor of New Mexico.
Martinez, a Republican, has pretty consistently stated that she supports “one man, one woman” marriage. She has expressed support for a constitutional amendment banning equality and has done nothing in her state for same-sex couples.
But yesterday Attorney General Gary King held a press conference in which he stated that while the state law does not allow same-sex marriage, it was likely an unconstitutional law. He did not issue a formal opinion. (Albuquerque Journal)
King said he did not issue a formal legal opinion on same-sex marriage to prevent conflict with the pending lawsuits. Instead, he advised county clerks around the state to continue to restrict marriage licenses only to opposite-sex couples until a court overturns New Mexico law or the Legislature weighs in.
Today Martinez said something sort of odd. (kob)
Gov. Susana Martinez says Attorney General Gary King was right in not issuing a formal opinion on whether same-sex marriage is legal in New Mexico and her office will not get involved in any challenges.
Martinez told the Associated Press on Friday that she also believed the courts decide if same-sex marriage is legal in the state.
This is not an endorsement. This is not exactly a positive statement. But it is a far cry from a call for constitutional bans. It’s stating that when the Attorney General goes before the court to say that he does not believe the law to be constitutional, her office will not contradict him.
It’s a drip. Just a drip. But that’s how icebergs melt.
The Brave Little Hairdresser
February 24th, 2012
Oh good heavens.
More detail has been provided on the tale of the poor little hairdresser who stood up to the vile gay-hating governor and who bravely stood on principal and refused to cut her hair. Turns out that this wasn’t exactly what happened.
Actually, Gov. Martinez didn’t ask him for a haircut. He had cut her hair once but wasn’t her regular stylist. Rather, he called her to inform her that he had discovered her position on marriage and was no longer available. He informed the press as well.
Oh, and while he was at it, he thought he’d throw in a insult based on her ethnicity. Cuz nothing proves that you have the moral high ground and are the injured party like engaging in a little racism.
Geez, thanks buddy.
As for Susanna “that Mexican” Martinez, I don’t know much about her but she has gotten some heat lately from the wingnuts for a gay appointment and she took the opportunity to tell the press that she opposes discrimination and thinks people should be judged on their merits.
Just a thought… Please don’t put yourself forward as a champion for our cause if you just now discovered that your governor doesn’t support marriage. If this hasn’t registered til just now, odds are that you may not be the ideal spokesman. Because you’re dumber than a box of
Hair Stylist Refuses To Style New Mexico Gov’s Hair Over Marriage Stance
February 22nd, 2012
An Albuquerque TV station reports that Antionio Darden, a popular stylist in Santa Fe, is refusing to accept an appointment with his former client, Gov. Susana Martinez:
“The governor’s aides called not too long ago, wanting another appointment to come in,” Darden said. “Because of her stances and her views on this I told her aides no. They called the next day, asking if I’d changed my mind about taking the governor in and I said no again.”
The governor has said she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that does not cut it with Darden.
“I think it’s just equality, dignity for everyone,” the popular hair stylist said. “I think everybody should be allowed the right to be together. My partner and I have been together for 15 years.”
In 2008, an Albuquerque photographer was sued for refusing the photograph the wedding of a lesbian couple. She claimed that being compelled to offer services to the couple violated her religious beliefs. She lost, and was ordered to pay $6,637 for the couple’s attorney fees and costs.
So here’s a discussion waiting to happen: how is it that the photographer was in the wrong but Darden is within his rights? Or vice versa? To be honest, I’m very ambivalent about both cases.
New Mexico Democrats kill anti-gay marriage bills
February 18th, 2011
From the Las Cruses Sun News
The House Consumer & Public Affairs Committee essentially killed two proposed constitutional amendments that would define marriage, for legal purposes as being between a man and a woman.
House Joint Resolution 7, sponsored by Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, would have made gay marriage unconstitutional if approved by the Legislature and by voters in the 2012 general election.
HJR8, sponsored by Rep. David Chavez, R-Los Lunas, also would seek to amend the Constitution to prevent New Mexico from recognizing otherwise legal out-of-state marriages between persons of the same sex. Earlier this year, state Attorney General Gary King said New Mexico should recognize such marriages, even though they legally can’t be performed in this state.
The committee also tabled House Bill 162, also sponsored by Chavez, which would bar the state from recognizing same-sex marriages from out of state.
All three measures were tabled on a 3-2 party-line vote.
AG: Marriage recognized in New Mexico
January 5th, 2011
There are a small handful of states in which there is some question as to whether same-sex marriages conducted where legal are recognized within the state. The Attorney General of New Mexico has now issued an opinion that New Mexico law affords such recognition.
Are same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions valid in New Mexico?
While we cannot predict how a New Mexico court would rule on this issue, after review of the law in this area, it is our opinion that a same-sex marriage that is valid under the laws of the country or state where it was consummated would likewise be found valid in New Mexico.
AG Gary King was elected in 2006, and won reelection in November. He is the son of Bruce King, who served three non-consecutive terms as Governor of the state, and served 12 years in the NM House of Representatives.
It will remain to be seen what the outcome will be should any same-sex New Mexican couple challenge the state for recognition, but for now we will move New Mexico into the column of “marriages recognized here.”
Meet New Mexico’s cowards and enemies of equality
February 4th, 2010
What do you do when you want to kill a bill and you don’t want any publicity for your action? Well, if you are a New Mexico Legislator you can use a procedural tactic.
New Mexico’s legislature meets for 30 days in even numbered years. So if you tie up a bill in committee after committee, you just run out of time. Which is what cowards and enemies of equality are seeking to do with New Mexico’s domestic partnership law. (New Mexico Independent)
Before sending the legislation on to Senate Judiciary Committee a 5-4 vote, the Senate Public Affairs Committee approved sending the 816-page bill to a third committee, the kiss of death during a 30-day session.
A bill that must go before three committees for hearings in either the House or Senate during a 30-day budget session is seen as having too much to overcome to survive the session.
The bill does have one powerful advocate in Governor, Bill Richardson (D) (LA Times).
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is pushing for a vote by all state senators on a proposal to allow domestic partnerships.
Richardson said Wednesday he doesn’t want the bill to get bottled up in a Senate committee this session. The bill has cleared one committee but needs to get through two more to reach the Senate floor.
But even with the Governor’s support, the timing is difficult.
So those who sought to hide from the needs of gay citizens and shield their cowardice and animosity behind procedure may well succeed. However, as I don’t wish to reward their efforts at scurrying into the shadows, I want to introduce you to the cowards and enemies of equality in New Mexico:
Tim Eichenberg – Democrat
Senate District 15 – Albuquerque
Vice Chair of the Public Affairs Committee
On his website Eichenberg says
People dislike politicians for their self-serving agendas, their double-speak and for not honoring their commitments.
A healthy, robust democracy is one in which legislators listen to and are beholden solely to the voters in their districts — not big campaign donors and lobbyists.
In 2009 Eichenberg voted for domestic partnerships. This year he voted to have it disappear in commmittee. I guess that just makes Eichenberg a cynical politician. This is his first term. Let’s hope it’s his last.
Vernon Asbill – Republican
Senate District 34 – Carlsbad
On his website he lists the issues that he believes are a priority for his constituents.
• Family Values
This is a combination of many factors, mainly the preservation of our lifestyle and culture. These values are deeply rooted and need to be nurtured, instilled in our children and passed from generation to generation.
At least you know where you stand with Asbill. His family’s values will always trump your family’s civil rights.
Mark Boitano – Republican
Senate District 18 – Albuquerque
He believes that “Religious faith and practice is an essential civil right and religious groups are important advocates in a pluralistic society.”
His views also link to the Fatherhood and Marriage Leadership Institute and he is somewhat obsessed with making sure that marriages be protected, advanced and given governmental advantage and financial preferences.
Gay Kernan – Republican
Senate District 42 – Hobbs
Gay seems to have no online presence. But she is a consistent vote for discrimination and inequality.
She hates treating all citizens equally.
Gay Kernan wants all of the rights that New Mexico has to offer. It’s a pity she cares nothing about what other gays may want.
George K Munoz – Democrat
Senate District 4 – Gallup
Munoz also voted against civil equality last year.
If this guy has an internet presence, I can’t find it. The only link I found to a campaign website led to an obsolete site. (Maybe he’s afraid of going on record about anything.)
I guess George Munoz is the male, Hispanic, Democratic version of Gay Kernan.
So now you know the New Mexico state senators who oppose equality but are too cowardly to do it by means of a public vote.
Sunday Driver: “Cuba Needs More Hookers”
December 6th, 2009
To get to the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, you get off the plane at Albuquerque and take US 550 toward the northwest. But you best be sure to stock up on refreshments, gas and restroom breaks before you leave the northern suburb of Bernalillo, because that’s just about the last chance you’ll get to stop until you reach the small village of Cuba, NM (pop. 590). There, you’ll have a few places to stop and eat: McDonalds, a Subway, El Bruno’s for Mexican food, and the venerable Cuban Cafe, among a few other choices. Last time through there a few months ago, I stopped for a restroom break at the combination McDonalds/Chevron station and found this scrawled in large letters on the stall door:
Cuba’s pretty small. I suppose that Cuba could probably use more of a lot of things. But for such a small town, it struck me as being relatively self-sufficient. I guess that’s out of necessity — the nearest other town of any size at all is a ninety minute drive away.
My immediate needs resolved (the restroom break, not hookers), I decided to head over to the Cuban Cafe for lunch (split pea soup, a grilled cheese sandwich and a Coke). As I ate, I read a copy of The Cuba News (published monthly) to get a lay of the land. There was a great article about the very early days of the town’s founding as a mission outpost, another “news” article that appeared to be compiled by someone scratching down disjointed notes while watching Glenn Beck on Fox News, a rant against the local police department for their vigorous enforcement of traffic laws (Cuba is a notorious speed trap), and the usual assortment of announcements for pot luck dinners, revivals, and other community events.
But as I was reading the paper and thought that I had gotten an idea of what the local landscape was like, I came across another listing that reminded me that no place could be nailed down to just a few simple images, not even a place as small as Cuba. There in the Religion announcements, amidst the Catholics, the Baptists, the Presbyterians and Assemblies of God, there were two — two! — separate announcements for Bahá’i meetings taking place around Cuba.
The Bahá’i faith, if you don’t know, was founded in nineteenth century Persia and emphasizes three principles: the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the spiritual humanity of all people around the world. Their main focus is in peace around the world, and they believe that all religions in some form or another embody the wonderment of the one God that unites us all. Those are some pretty high-minded (one might say liberal) concepts. (Update: They may be “liberal” but not so much where homosexuality is concerned. But they are decidedly unconventional nonetheless.) There are an estimated six million Bahá’is around the world, and out of the 590 people living in Cuba, there are enough Bahá’is to support not just one, but two different meetings of the faithful for worship and meditation.Well that reminded me of a very important lesson, one that I should have known well from my own background, but that we all have a tendency to forget no matter where we come from. Wherever you go, you hold the responsibility to see exactly what is in front of you and not your preconceived expectations of what you expect to find. Any place — even an isolated town of six hundred souls — is more complex than any snapshot or isolated image can muster.
My great-grandmother used to defend her rural Kentucky background by saying that hicks are just people who don’t know anything about the rest of the world, and that you can find hicks in some mighty fancy places. With her definition, I’ve run across a lot of hicks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, Boston, London — just about everywhere you can imagine, I’ve met people who thought they knew everything there was to know about middle America. I expected to find hicks in Cuba according to the more conventional meaning of the word, but it turned out that I was the one my great-grandmother would brand the hick. I can’t say whether Cuba really needs more hookers or not, but the world could probably stand a few more trips to Cuba.
Sunday Driver: Surrounded By Indians
October 25th, 2009
For several weeks over the past three months, my job has taken me to the Four Corners area of New Mexico on the Navajo Indian Reservation. While there, I’ve gotten a small, tentative peak at small snippets of Navajo culture from among my co-workers, the first thing being that they don’t call themselves Navajo. Instead, they call themselves Diné, which just means “The People.” The second thing I learned — and I know this runs the danger of indulging in meaningless stereotypes — is that on the whole, the Diné are a very friendly and humorous people. I am by no means an expert on Native American peoples, nor have I done much extensive traveling on Indian lands, but of the tribes and reservations that I have come in contact with, the Diné have a very different vibe about them. They are both proudly Diné and proudly American. The Diné language is a flourishing, living language, Diné land is breathtakingly beautiful, and all in all — to this outsider at least — there just seems to be this sense of belonging and permanence. That sense that the Diné are here, they’ve always been here, and they will be here forever.
My last business trip happened to coincide with the Northern Navajo Fair, held annually in Shiprock, New Mexico. It’s sort of like a state fair for the Navajo reservation. Since Shiprock was about an hour away from where I was working, and I was going to have to work through the weekend, I decided to take a Saturday evening off and make the two-hour drive to get there. That’s one hour to get to Shiprock, and another hour in traffic through that small town to park and walk to the fairgrounds. I mentioned my plans to one of my Diné co-workers. He smiled and said, “I don’t know. You might yourself surrounded by Indians.”
I did say the Diné have a great sense of humor, didn’t I?
Well, I went and had a great time. The fair itself is much like any other state or county fair. There was a midway with rides, typical fair food of funnel cakes, sausages, and turkey legs, carnies hawking games and other merchandise, livestock and horticulture exhibits, 4H and Future Farmers of America events. And a rodeo, a staple of all fairs in the American West.
And there was dust, dust like you can’t imagine. Gather thousands of people to walk around a few acres of desert, and you will stir up a fine dust that hangs in the air like a giant tan cloud. For that weekend, the Shiprock fairgrounds were without a doubt The Dustiest Place On Earth.
But of course, since this was the Navajo fair, there were several differences from your typical state fair. A traditional Pow-wow was taking place in one corner of the fairgrounds, a series of Diné community singing and dancing contests were held in a central pavilion, and just off the garishly-lit midway was a more humble, dimly-lit area of traditional Diné food vendors. While their operations were considerably simpler than the flashing lights of the corndog trailers, they had at least one huge advantage over their outside competitors: The Diné vendors constructed tents or simple plywood shelters to shield their diners from the dust.
Now each the sheltered areas were typically small, large enough to hold maybe four or five folding tables, which for me presented a small problem because I was feeling conspicuously White. I felt a great deal of trepidation about going into one of those small tents by myself, a White guy interloping among several Diné families enjoying dinner. But I found one vendor which was mostly empty, and so I decided to try that one.
It turned out to be a good choice. This vendor had arranged her tables differently from the others. Her tables were arranged in a U-shape, with diners sitting on the outside of the “U” facing the center. Since I was the only one there, I sat at the bottom of the “U” and gave her my order of roast mutton in frybread and a bottle of water. Soon after I sat down, several others joined me: an elderly couple on the leg of the “U” to my left, and a family of dancers later came in and sat along the leg of the “U” to my right. When my food arrived, two middle-aged sisters sat down to my immediate left, and an elderly gentleman crowded in to my right. Before I knew it, we had a full house.
With the configuration of the tables where everyone is facing everyone else, conversation naturally came easily. And I saw right away how foolish I was to feel out of place. The lady to my left immediately struck up a conversation with me and told me about the things I should see at the fair. She also insisted that I try the Navajo Tea, a traditional tea brewed from the Greenthread herb. So while I was sipping the tea, the elderly gentleman was telling me about himself, his late wife, his son in college, and, of course, the fact that “Navajo” is what White people call them, and that they call themselves Diné. Which I already knew, but I nodded respectfully as one would do for one’s elders, and I carefully inserted the word Diné in my conversation whenever it was appropriate to do so. Meanwhile, the lady at my left explained the grand finale performance that everyone was there to see later that night.
To give you a little bit of background, the fair begins the weekend before with a nine day healing ceremony known as the Ye’ii Bi Chei Ceremony. It is a series of dances performed continuously by several groups of dancers. The Ye’ii Bi Chei culminates with a grand-finale on the last Saturday night of the fair, that very same Saturday night that I happened to there. But because the Ye’ii Bi Chei finale was scheduled to begin at 10:00 p.m. and I was looking at another two-hour drive to get back to the hotel and going to work the next day, I wasn’t able to attend. So that’s one reason why there aren’t any pictures of it. But the other, much more important reason is that photography is strictly forbidden due to the sacred nature of the ceremony.
But as I said, there was so much more to see and experience. So after everyone had finished eating and we took our leave of each other, I walked over to the central pavilion where the singing and dancing contests were being held. Those I could photograph, even though all I had on me was my cell phone. Since taking snapshots is what tourists do, I played my part. Then I pocketed my phone and just stood and watched.
Now I know we’ve all heard “Indian music” in the movies. It’s typically performed as a high-pitched wail set against the beating of a drum. Diné music, in those respects, is no different — at least superficially, and my untrained ears aren’t capable of going beyond the superficial. And when this music is performed in the movies, we White folks can only take so much of it before it becomes annoying. Maybe that’s why they keep those scenes short.
But I noticed something very different as I stood at the edge of the pavilion and listened as groups and families got up to chant and drum, while others gathered to dance in a slow circle. When you hear the drums beating with you right there, they take on the characteristics of a heartbeat. Maybe not literally, and I have no idea whether that’s what they’re intended to do, but they appear as natural and essential as a beating heart, accompanying the groups as they chanted their songs.
And what amazing songs they are. Every other performance I’ve ever attended, I’ve heard what sounds like a consciously planned, written and rehearsed performance, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And they come off as well-rehearsed — or maybe not so well-rehearsed, as the case may be. But when you go to a concert, that’s generally what you pay to see. And here too, I also witnessed what must have been carefully rehearsed performances as well — these are groups singing in perfect unison, not individuals making it up as they went along — but it didn’t sound like it.
Instead, these songs sounded as if they were not made by human effort, but were the reflection of something much larger, both inside and outside the singers. It’s like the songs welled up from the dusty ground, pushed their way through the singers’ throats, burst forth from out of their mouths and into the cool night air, and swirled up to the stars and the full moon that shined down on the fairgrounds that night. And the songs themselves don’t feel like they are confined to the moment in which they are performed. Instead, they seem to transcend time, never beginning nor ending. They remain permanent, as permanent as the Diné themselves. And all the while there is the steady beat, beat, beat, steady and strong like a heart. Like the world’s heart, giving life to the crisp autumn night, and cutting through the dust and the noise of the carnival barkers and the DJ playing Pitbull’s Calle Ocho off in the distance. It cut through all of that because the Diné are here, they’ve always been here, and they will be here forever.
I pulled my cell phone back out of my pocket and called my partner back home. “Chris,” I said, “you’ve got to hear this…”