The town of Gallup, New Mexico, likes to call itself “the heart of Indian Country,” which is true if you think the “heart” is where the money is.
Ever since Native American arts and crafts were monetized, Gallup has been a major marketplace.
First as a stop along the wagon trail, then the railroad and finally the highway (Route 66, I-40), Gallup has made most of its living as a stopover or a destination. For well over a hundred years, Gallup has been where the traveler, the tourist, meets the Navajo weaving, the Zuni jewelry or the Acoma pottery.
Like most bazaars, the Gallup market is dominated by middle-people, merchants who buy materials from Native Americans and sell them to the visitors. Traditionally the Gallup marketplace was dominated by Whites, but more recently traders from Palestine, from the West Bank area around Ramallah, got successfully into the trade.
Now, as the range of tribal and pueblo products makes clear, Gallup may not actually be part of Indian Country, but it is surrounded by it, especially by the Navajo Nation to the north and west and the Zuni pueblo to the south.
This accounts for much of the rest of the Gallup economy, Native Americans not as artisanal suppliers, but as buyers of gas and groceries. Most of Native America is a classic food desert, few grocery stores, even fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. So when many Navajos shop in Gallup on the weekend, the town population can double or triple for a day.
Good as far as it goes, but there is clear evidence that elements of Gallup-Navajo commerce go too far. As you would expect, Gallup’s main street is all Indian crafts shops, motels and restaurants. But the back streets are full of liquor stores and predatory “payday lenders.” Their marketing is as Indian-centered as any of the shop windows on Old Route 66. You can’t buy liquor on the reservation, so many Native Americans come to Gallup to buy, and to borrow money to pay for, the booze.
Some spend the night, sometimes many nights, homeless in Gallup. The issue has long troubled relations between people in Gallup and the Navajo Nation.
And that was all before COVID-19, before the Navajo Nation became the hottest coronavirus hotspot in America, before sparsely populated McKinley County of which Gallup is truly the heart, became the hardest hit county in the state, before Gallup’s mayor begged Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to not just lock his town of 22,000 citizens down, but seal it up, close the exits on the Interstate and all the roads into town.
And then what? The lockdown lasted from May 1 to May 10. The town officially reopened under a tighter version of the same restrictions as the rest of the state… but in the face of a viral tsunami on the Navajo reservation next door and a smaller, but serious outbreak in the Zuni Pueblo.
COVID-19 hit Gallup, too. By mid-April, weeks before the lockdown, one of the two short-staffed hospitals in town was dealing with 30 COVID-19 cases among staff, including 10 nurses. So, when the mayor asked for the lockdown, people in Gallup – and Jonathan Nez, the president of the Navajo Nation – supported it. It was a drastic sacrifice for a tourism town, but people were willing to lock themselves in, to protect against the disease.
It’s a measure of the longstanding suspicions between town and tribe that to many Navajos, Gallup was locking them out to protect against Native people. These are trying times indeed.
Weston Phippen is a writer based in Santa Fe. He reported on Gallup for Searchlight NM and his work has also appeared in The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, and Business Insider.