Communication Currents

Communication and Culture Clash in America’s “Indian Country”

June 1, 2011
Intercultural Communication

Organizations in the Gallup, New Mexico area have created an extensive eco-tourism trail system that caters to hikers, runners, and cyclists. Unfortunately, the original idea of a loop trail for Pyramid Peak never came to fruition. However, the Churchrock Chapter of the Navajo continues to work on economic development and to participate with the Gallup community one project at a time while adamant about not endangering their own rights to the land that they have fought so hard to assert. The findings in this case study serve to emphasize the need for continued development of new dialogic practices for use among cultural groups during public dialogue processes, and for closer ties among communication and planning scholars.

Around the world, indigenous peoples face communication challenges in their pursuit of economic and community development. The Churchrock Chapter of the Navajo in Gallup, New Mexico is one such community which interacted with their neighbors on an eco-tourism project. As part of that effort, participants began a project to expand an existing hiking trail, Pyramid Peak, into a loop trail that would cross Navajo land and include terrain suitable for mountain bikes, as well as for running, a traditional Navajo athletic and spiritual activity. Communication problems created a roadblock for the project when the interests of individual Navajo land owners (allottees) and the interests of the project came into conflict.

This case study highlights three imperatives that planners and other community members can learn for working in this kind of context: a) non-Native American participants must be willing and ready to be educated by the Native American community; b) specialized communication practices must be instituted in relation to the needs of the particular Native American community; and c) planning processes must pay attention to preparing the environment to support success.            

Gallup, New Mexico is located in the southwestern United States in an area that is still referred to legally and in official federal government documents as “Indian Country.” There are three local governance structures in the area immediately around Gallup: McKinley County as part of the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments (COG), the City of Gallup, and the Churchrock Chapter of the Navajo Nation. The population of the area is primarily aboriginal, including members of the Navajo Nation, the Hopi and a number of Pueblos (including Zuni and Laguna). The city of Gallup’s population is 37% aboriginal (32% Navajo) and 45% designated as White with 35% reporting Hispanic or Latino heritage.

My task was to conduct a communication assessment of the Pyramid Peak project. During my assessment I interviewed participants and reviewed documents to identify communication linkages between participants; obstacles and communication issues; and plans for proceeding and making decisions.  I used three sources: a) documents provided by the various stakeholder groups; b) observational and content notes I took during four stakeholder meetings; and c) three transcripts of audio taped sessions including the project orientation and meetings with individuals from the VISTA and YCC organizations. In order to analyze and make recommendations for intercultural dialogue in the Gallup case, I used 9P Planning as a framework. 9P Planning consists of a step-by-step communication process that focuses on relationship-building among marginalized and dominant culture sectors of the community.

While the Gallup community in general acknowledged the need to change their culture from one of exploitation to one of entrepreneurship, there was no critical look at what the shift to entrepreneurship itself might mean. Knowledge about the legal implications for the Navajo allottees was minimal, even for community members who had ongoing relationships within the Navajo community. There was also a reluctance to face the strong emotions of Churchrock members that were a result of long-standing historical issues around land tenure and enduring racism.

Navajo allottees have a special relationship to the land as a result of regulations administered the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). Allotments are land held in trust by the U.S. government for individual tribal members. Tribal governments are not generally the decision-makers with regard to right-of-way easements. The Secretary of DOI can authorize an easement and does not need the consent of all the allottees if certain conditions are met. Due to a lack of knowledge on the part of the non-Native American community about the DOI process, here is what actually happened: 1) Initiation of Pyramid Peak Loop trail construction through a VISTA and YCC project grant after (perceived) verbal approval given by Churchrock economic coordinator on behalf of Churchrock Chapter to cross allotment lands; 2) verbal indications from affected allottees of non-consent to cross their land (300 allottees affected); 3) door-to-door survey by VISTA/YCC project coordinator which indicated that the main desire of the allottees was to maintain their current informal access to county land for sheep grazing; 4) meeting held at Churchrock Chapter where consent was not obtained (in an atmosphere of contention).

In the end the consultation process therefore served the Navajo to preserve their boundary interests but disrupted good relationships that had existed with neighboring community members. Relationships would have been better served if  Non-Native American participants were willing and ready to be educated by the Native American community about their needs and  requirements, rather than forging ahead with what seemed logical and fair to them. 

The data I gathered showed that a wide array of the community was invited to participate in the planning of the eco-tourism project. Meetings were held in various locations, including at Churchrock Chapter; and meetings included opportunities for anyone to speak. The meeting at Churchrock Chapter was configured in a typical way for public meetings: A microphone is given first to somebody who lays out the issue; speakers then respond as the microphone is passed, with the intention that a vote of some sort will take place at the end and the project will proceed. This is not necessarily an indigenous way of doing things. For Navajo it is more common for the people with the project to sit in a place where they are expected only to listen while the community being consulted (the Navajo) comes and tells them how they feel and of their experiences. This can go on for as long as there is anybody wishing to speak, perhaps even for days, with participants coming and going as they have time. This is just one example that demonstrates that: specialized communication practices must be instituted in relation to the needs of the particular Native American community. 

Meetings not held on Churchrock land were not attended by members of the Churchrock community, an indication that the residents did not feel truly included. One participant explained to me that the project really needed to ask who the project was actually being developed for: the local residents or visitors from outside the area. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of this question, he indicated that if it was truly meant to serve the local population and not to exploit them, then we should go out on the street and remind ourselves of who really lives here--Native American and Latino communities--and that eco-tourism biking trails did not necessarily serve them. He suggested that in-town walking pathways would be much more useful. It is critical to ensure that communication structures are put into place that will support the ability of community members to participate. To do this, planning processes must pay attention to preparing the contextual environment to support success during communication. 

About the author (s)

Marcella LaFever

University of the Fraser Valley

Faculty member