Monday, April 9, 2012

Alternative Spring Break in Indian Country

Over spring break a few weeks ago, 17 students from UC Davis School of Law took an alternative spring break trip to assist underserved communities in the American Southwest. The students participated in the trip through the Humanitarian Aid Legal Organization (HALO), a UC Davis law student organization that is committed to providing legal and humanitarian aid. Each year, HALO organizes an alternative spring break trip that facilitates students' volunteer work with legal aid organizations in parts of the country struck by natural disasters, persistent poverty, and other crises.

This year HALO was able to serve multiple communities. Seven students spent their week at Utah Legal Services in St. George, Utah, while ten students volunteered with DNA People's Legal Services (DNA) in northern Arizona and New Mexico. DNA's mission is to provide legal services to low-income Native Americans. I participated in the Arizona portion of the trip and found the areas we explored to be quite beautiful- and also very rural. Growing up in California the images I associate with Indians are casinos. I encountered a very different scene in Arizona, however, where not a casino was in sight. Instead sunset-red rocks, woods, and grand mesas greeted us as we arrived on the reservations.

We spent most of the week at DNA's main office in Window Rock, Arizona, population 2,712. After taking an online course, the IRS certified seven of us as volunteers under the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which permitted us to assist clients in completing their tax returns. Three other students spent the week doing legal aid work on issues related to property, public benefits, and consumer law. Some of our students also traveled to Chinle and Keams Canyon, Arizona and to Crownpoint, New Mexico to provide tax and other legal assistance. In some locations demand for tax assistance was so great that we had to turn potential clients away. Our week with DNA illustrated the great demand for these services.

We encountered many native people who were low-income in the Navajo Nation, also known as the Navajo reservation. Some of the reservation lies within persistent poverty counties- Apache and Navajo counties. Given that information, I was expecting poverty to be more evident. Many of the homes on the Navajo Nation were manufactured or self-made but did not seem particularly dilapidated. My conclusion is that part of the poverty probably was not as evident due to the fact we were in town and much of the reservation is very rural. While on a tour of the Hubbell Trading Post, a famous trading post on the Navajo reservation, I learned that Navajo culture is one reason for the rural nature of the reservation. My understanding is that, Navajo people live with a great deal of open space between residences. A majority of the Navajo population lived dispersed across the reservation, which is the largest reservation in the United States. This reminded me of how some non-native rural people prefer to live miles from the nearest neighbors.

On our drive back from Window Rock we drove through the Hopi reservation and encountered a different situation. While the population was still sparse, on top of many of the mesas were small villages where people lived close together. The poverty was much more evident and it felt more like a developing country. Some homes were decaying to an extent that made habitation surprising. Many of the homes also had windows and doors boarded up. The view from the top of the mesa was spectacular as vast miles of red desert spread out in every direction. We were not allowed to take pictures or tour the village as we might step on sacred land unknowingly or make the locals feel like tourist attractions. I was not surprised at these tribal regulations given the many years of disrespectful behavior by visitors.

The poverty I witnessed was distressing and I questioned who should try to alleviate it. Is it the federal or state government's responsibility because they helped to put Native peoples in these positions? Individuals like myself who have little understanding of the culture? Tribal governments or non-profits like DNA because they understand native culture, traditions and world-views? Some combination? I know DNA and other community-driven organizations should be a part of the answer. What I appreciated about the organization was that both native and non-native attorneys and tribal advocates staff it. The non-native attorneys took care to respect the Navajo culture. In addition they used some legal remedies that are distinctly Navajo, such as peacemaking, a form of dispute resolution. I hope advocates at DNA continue to make strides in the fight against poverty on the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

Many times on the trip I felt as though I was in a different country and questioned to what extent I could make a difference. Almost everyone around me was either Navajo or Hopi. Many people spoke Navajo, a language I had never heard. It was remarkable to feel like such an outsider within the borders of the United States. I found that the distinct cultures on the reservations are hard for outsiders to penetrate. While this situation is similar to that of other rural communities where outsiders may have a hard time assimilating or effectively providing services, the history between Native peoples and white people in this part of the Southwest creates an even greater cultural rift. I recommend that if one plans to visit or work on an Indian reservation, he or she become acquainted with the basics of the tribe's culture and not expect to make any immediate changes.

Overall, the trip was an enlightening and educational experience, and I hope we were able to have positive impacts in the lives of some DNA clients. I greatly encourage everyone to visit the Navajo Nation and Hopi reservation. My experience changed my perspective of what a reservation is and what it means to be Native American. To date, this is the most thought-provoking spring break I have experienced.

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