In Albuquerque, Native Americans account for about 4% of the population, yet they make up 44% of the city’s homeless population, according to the 2017 Albuquerque Point in Time Count Report.
Yet Albuquerque has struggled to define which authority—the city or surrounding tribes—is responsible for providing services to Natives living in the urban center. Not until two homeless men, both Native, were murdered in a violent hate crime in 2014 was a committee, the Native American Homelessness Task Force, created to address the needs of Albuquerque’s unhoused Native population.
The city of Albuquerque recently took another step to more directly manage the needs of its often-overlooked Native community. In March, Mayor Tim Keller passed a bill that expands a 1995 ordinance, aiming to better recognize and address the needs of its Native population.
The amendment aims to increase communication between the city and its urban Native community by taking the city’s Commission on American Indians and Alaska Natives commission from five members to 15; six of these members will represent the surrounding tribes. It also allows commission members to create ad hoc committees to address specific issues of education, homelessness, or health care.
Dawn Begay, a citizen of Navajo Nation and the tribal liaison for the mayor’s office, will help the commission members achieve their goal.
Begay has been working with the mayor’s office since 2015 as the liaison. Before her appointment, she worked with urban Natives as a caseworker for Albuquerque’s First Nations Community Healthsource.
When Begay began work on reviving the commission, all five commission seats were vacant. In 2016, Begay and members of the Native American Homelessness Task Force recommended that the commission be reactivated. Begay filled the seats in 2016, and since then they’ve been working to make the commission a more effective force in Albuquerque.
“We wanted people that could come together to reignite the mission so that they can be another resource for the city,” Begay said.
With the addition of ad hoc committees, Begay said, commission members would get more tribal representation around single issues. The committees will also help increase communication between the city government and the urban Native population, she said.
Miscommunication and the lack of awareness of issues particular to Native people living in Albuquerque are some of the reasons the city has struggled to serve urban Natives.
Begay said many people assume that tribal members still receive tribal benefits if they live off the reservation, but that’s not the case. While governments and tribes wonder which has jurisdiction over a Native citizen, that person never receives services they need.
“That’s why I think there’s a lot of underrepresentation because we think each entity is providing services, but really they’re not,” Begay said, “We need someone to listen to [urban Natives].”
Native Americans living or working in the city face different challenges from those living on the reservation.
One challenge, Begay said, are missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“It’s a jurisdiction mess,” Begay said. “Where the crime happens—are you filing with the county, state, or federally? That’s unique to Natives because it can cross over to many jurisdictions.”
Another issue, particularly for Natives traveling from the reservation into Albuquerque, is language. If someone needs to see a service provider in the city, it’s challenging to find one who speaks an Indigenous language.
“Most specialty providers are in the city, so a lot of them have to travel to visit a specialist,” Begay said. “How many service providers can actually speak the language?”
The original ordinance established what was then the Commission on Indian Affairs, which planned to advocate for Native interests. It didn’t formally recognize tribal sovereignty; the amended ordinance does.
Lloyd Lee, a member of the reactivated commission since 2016 and an enrolled citizen of the Navajo Nation, said the ordinance is just one step in helping Albuquerque’s Native American community.
While his three-year-term ends this fall, Lee said, the current members have made sure the next commission has the resources needed to make the newer, larger commission successful. This includes gathering feedback from Native constituents, establishing relationships with city officials, and building a better social media presence.
When Lee first joined the reactivated commission, they focused primarily on identifying where the city falls short for Natives, he said. After that, the commission focused on communicating these needs to members of the city, and trying to get them to understand—and respond—to them. For Lee, the amendment is a crucial step in cementing this new partnership.
“The ordinance is part of the tools necessary for the mayor to understand and the city to understand the important relationship they have to the Native nations in New Mexico,” he said.
Ron Allen, the treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians, said that accountability will be key, considering governments have broken countless treaties with tribes in the past.
Having someone like Begay whose job is to facilitate communication between the city and the commission can help with accountability, he said.
Because Natives from tribes outside of New Mexico call Albuquerque home, serving only the nearby communities won’t be enough. Lee said the city and the commission must listen to all their Native citizens equally.
“Systemic changes don’t happen overnight. It does make a difference and it is meaningful.”
“The thing about maintaining a relationship is you work at it,” Lee said. “You do it in a way that is reciprocal and respectful and that includes as many perspectives as possible.”
Still, the commission doesn’t hold any legal power. It can only make recommendations. If Albuquerque’s Indigenous community hopes to see any improvements, they must rely on the mayor and city council.
While governments continue to ignore federal treaties, it can be hard for Natives to trust that anything will come of the ordinance.
“There’s very few moments throughout the past couple hundred years where working with any type of government entity ever worked in favor of Natives,” Begay said.
However, she sees this as an opportunity to redefine how government entities have worked with Native peoples in the past.
And Allen has seen partnerships like Albuquerque’s work. A city simply recognizing its responsibility to Native people is a success in his book.
In his home state of Washington, legislation formally recognized the sovereignty of their 26 federally recognized tribes. Allen said legislation like this is important because it shows that state and local governments recognize and respect their unique relationships with surrounding tribes.
“You have no idea what it was like 10 or 30 years ago,” he said. “Systemic changes don’t happen overnight. It does make a difference, and it is meaningful.”
Begay said they probably won’t see significant change for at least a year. But, the ordinance is a step toward the city showing that it takes Native issues seriously.
“This is going to go beyond the mayor and our current city councilors,” Begay said. “It has the potential to sustain decades.”