The everyday violence of Indian Country’s ‘bordertowns’

In ‘Red Nation Rising,’ violence in the communities abutting reservations illuminates colonialism’s continued presence.

 

In June 2017, a store owner in Omaha, Nebraska, called the cops on Zachary Bearheels, a young Rosebud Sioux man, who was acting erratically in the street. Bearheels, who had been traveling to visit his mother, ended up on the side of the highway after he was kicked off a Greyhound bus, without medication for his bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. After walking all day, he was met by four police officers. The scene quickly escalated; officers cuffed Bearheels and placed him in a police cruiser, then let him out after calling his mother, who had filed a missing person’s report. Bearheels fled and was chased by police, who beat and tased him repeatedly. When it was all over, Bearheels, hands still cuffed behind his back, lay dead on the ground. According to news sources, the coroner’s report stated he had died of “excited delirium syndrome,” a non-medical, junk-science euphemism police use when suspects die from tasers or chokeholds.

Bearheels’ story is part of the violent legacy of Indian Country’s “bordertowns” — the towns and cities outside Indian reservations, where Indigenous and white residents live side-by-side. His case is one of many documented in Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation, by Nick Estes, Melanie K. Yazzie, Jennifer Nez Denetdale and David Correia. The book illuminates the long-overlooked, amorphous violence that has plagued Indian Country’s bordertowns, from early settler colonialism days to today. Part manifesto and part historical analysis, Red Nation Rising reveals how settler colonialism still shapes the lives of Indigenous people — and how they are singled out by frontier-born legal, social and political realities and seen as possible targets. 

A photo of Albuquerque, New Mexico, overlayed on a 1970 atlas, shows the reservations surrounding the “bordertown.”
Photo illustration by High Country News. Sources: Kalen Goodluck; Library of Congress
Bordertowns began as mining and military outposts, established on the perimeters of reservations. Many are small towns, but others are growing cities like Albuquerque, Seattle and Rapid City. By Red Nation Rising’s standards, any white-dominated settlement on traditional tribal territory qualifies as a bordertown. Whether established by occupying U.S. military forces, vigilantes or land opportunists, these settlements — built on occupied Indigenous homelands — were violent from the beginning. Today, they are too often the site of police brutality, marked by workplace discrimination, extreme poverty, and a lack of housing and social services for Native people. Tribal jurisdiction is limited or nonexistent when it comes to prosecuting civil and criminal offenses. Red Nation Rising is a handbook for these issues, the first of its kind; it not only synthesizes the histories of tribes and surrounding settlers, it catalogs the “million daily indignities” of bordertown life.

Like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Red Nation Rising’s history is framed completely from a Native perspective. Rather than take a strictly scholarly viewpoint, the authors call out American colonialism in everyday life, declaring: “The settler got the world, the Indian got the reservation.” Each chapter breaks down a series of terms — Anti-Indianism, say, or Indian killers — each serving as a starting point to explore the consequences of enforcing borders on Native people.

“The settler got the world, the Indian got the reservation.”

Many white Americans have a vague awareness of colonialism’s lingering presence, but Red Nation Rising delves into it, focusing on the interactions between Natives and non-Natives in bordertowns. It’s an issue that hasn’t been widely or systematically studied, as shown by the lack of statistics on violence against Natives. The book helps remedy this by the stories it brings to light. Since the 1960s, vigilantes and police in Gallup, New Mexico, have killed numerous Native people or left them to die of exposure. Today, unsheltered people in Gallup and Albuquerque describe constant harassment by police, who go out of their way to detain them for loitering or public intoxication. In July 2014, three Albuquerque teenagers beat and killed two sleeping Diné (Navajo) men. This kind of lynching, the book explains, has a name: “Indian rolling,” a term widely used after three Diné men were mutilated and murdered in 1974 near Farmington, New Mexico — killed by three white high schoolers. 

Red Nation Rising pulls no punches, describing violence in ways that are sometimes difficult to read. Vigilantes are “Indian killers” and police, “professional Indian killers.” Some readers might be offended by the tone and the blame placed on today’s “settler society.” Parts of the book can feel rushed, as if there were too much to explain to newcomers to the subject. The authors concentrate on documenting how extreme bordertown violence is; how can it be stopped unless we acknowledge knowing its reach? 

Despite the bleak and often-overlooked history they describe, the authors envision a hopeful future. The book ends with a 10-point manifesto that calls for solidarity to end the bitter legacy of settler colonialism that pervades cities and towns on Native lands. Red Nation Rising is an impassioned indictment of the violent logic of bordertowns — a rarely discussed political and societal reality. It reveals how deeply colonialism still impacts Indigenous peoples today. 

Kalen Goodluck is a reporter and photographer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He comes from the Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian tribes. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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