A new visual project goes to Gallup, where opportunities are scarce and drinking hairspray and hand sanitiser are all part of ‘Chemical Sunday’ – life is hard for the Navajo people
Across the border from my hometown sits the largest Indian Reservation in the United States. 27,000 square miles of solitude and mostly inhospitable terrain shackled to the saga of the Navajo people. Three million tourists per year, a 51 per cent alcoholism rate, and 42 per cent unemployment. Two out of every three Navajo women have been sexually assaulted. Louisiana's poverty rate – the highest in the nation – touches 23 per cent. Double that, and you’ll be close to the Navajo nation. Nearly half of the reservation lives without running water or electricity.
Welcome to Gallup. The most dangerous city in New Mexico, according to the FBI. The epicentre for Navajos, and the ‘Big Apple’ of the reservation. It sits along the famous Route 66 and thrives off passing tourists making their way west to destinations like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and California. Families cram into overpriced hotels, eating undercooked continental breakfasts and throwing money at what’s likely Chinese-sourced turquoise on the ‘main drag’ of town. If only they knew what lies on either side of the highway.
The scope of our ignorance is astounding. Ever present, the massive homeless population find themselves casualties of two wars – one foreign and one domestic. Many are veterans and came back to the reservation only to find alcoholism as the single employer. Lack of hope is palpable in most areas although there are a few – mainly the missionaries of charity – who have dedicated their lives trying to slow the inevitable.
“Everyone calls it ‘Chemical Sunday’... they drink Listerine, Lysol, hair spray, hand sanitiser... that’s what they do, that’s what we do, not just me but I know all of us are doing it”
Jack Bridger and I travelled to Gallup this past summer, hoping to capture a glimpse into the world of the reservation that we unknowingly helped create. We lived out of my car for a week and met with the homeless, speaking to anyone who looked like they had a story. We were told it wasn’t safe to be in the streets, especially being white. After nearly being stabbed during our last interview I can say they may have been correct. We spoke to many men with the same story. Abandonment and mistreatment from the U.S government married tribal corruption and birthed an unquenchable thirst for alcohol and drugs, rolled into a compendium of hazy despair.
Mervin, a homeless veteran, explained how his time in the war introduced him to alcohol: “we had a train that only served liquor... now I can say that’s where I spend my breakfast, lunch, and dinner”.
On our third day, we sat along the south side strip, where most of the homeless congregate around four o’clock to wait for the soup kitchen opening. We spoke to many men who understandably had no trust in two young, white, affluent individuals who probably were only asking them questions as a means of exploitation and personal glorification. I couldn’t say they were wrong. A man sitting alone motioned my way. I followed the gesture.
“I’ll tell you the real story,” he slurred. “Everyone calls it ‘Chemical Sunday’... they drink Listerine, lysol, hair spray, hand sanitiser... that’s what they do, that’s what we do, not just me but I know all of us are doing it.” Laws prohibit the sale of liquor on Sundays, hence the name.
Moments later he pulled out his own bottle. I smelled hairspray before thinking to ask what it was. How do you tell someone it’s all going to be okay when you know they will probably be found face down within a few years? Better yet, why do we feel the need to lie only to make ourselves feel better, compounding the underlying issue further?
The Navajo people. Their culture glorified, used, perverted, exploited, admired, thrown in a ditch to be consumed by scavengers. Icons of the West. A symbol of beauty and strength, drowning in a dry land. Like children going to the zoo we see only what want to, meanwhile failing to realise these people are caged in a prison we helped build but aren’t capable of tearing down by themselves.
You’ll never hear a Hillary or Trump speech about addressing Native American issues. Mainly because they don’t give a shit. Possibly because even if every Native voted, their voices probably wouldn’t swing an election one way or another. Perhaps we expect too much from corrupt lifelong politicians and arrogant businessmen. Sure, Washington throws a bone now and again by appointing a Native federal judge or something similar, but this is only to push a larger agenda fueled by personal legacy and party glorification. By virtue, most Navajos are quiet people whose voices trail off long before they reach the ears of media or government.
Our last day we met a young man, Orlando Walker. He runs Shallow Gallery, a space exclusively for Native artists. He explained that the youth of the reservation are seeing the curse of alcohol and resorting to sports and art in large numbers. The average age on the reservation is 24. Maybe there is hope. Gallup has a vibrant art scene propelled by people like Walker – if you were waiting for good news this is it. Many Navajo have found ways to blend tradition and progression by cultivating their land, raising animals and families. College attendance is growing quickly, in part to some institutions offering free tuition. Yes, many Navajo are thriving – but not enough.
Horses always reflect the demeanour of their owners. The reservation Mustangs aren't swayed by carrots and apples, never allowing visitors to come within 20 yards of their presence. It takes days to gain even the smallest amount of trust. Months to develop a relationship. Regardless of if you’re trying to pacify white guilt, or mask a publicity stunt for a few thousand followers with an ‘act of charity’, the Navajo people don't need a drive-by pity handout. They are one of us. They need real care and lasting action, to show that maybe, just maybe, Americans are finally on their side. After all, we live in the land of opportunity while they drift in a place where shooting for the stars will likely land you in a ditch.
Watch an excerpt of Chemical Sunday above.