Genevieve Jackson grew up on the edge of the Navajo Nation, not far from Gallup, New Mexico. Like many Navajos, Jackson’s mother came to Gallup to buy alcohol. Jackson says her mother often wound up passed out on the streets.
“Whenever it was announced on the radio that an unidentified woman’s body was found I was just in fear,” said Jackson, a McKinley County commissioner. “It was almost a relief it wasn’t her, but then another body would be found.”
The Navajo Nation prohibits the sale of alcohol, but Jackson says that doesn’t stop Navajos from buying from bootleggers or drinking in border towns like Gallup. Three decades ago Gallup, New Mexico, was known as "Drunk Town, USA." For many years it ranked number one nationally in the number of alcohol-related deaths. The community, which borders the Navajo Nation, has worked hard to save lives and change its image.
This time of year Community Service Aids drive around Gallup looking for people who are at risk of freezing to death.
“They go out in the evenings and the daytime looking for people lying inebriated in the open fields, down in the ditches, or arroyos or just passed out,” Jackson said.
In the 1980s, the police were tasked with picking up people like Jackson’s mother. The majority of their shift was spent saving people who’d drunk themselves unconscious.
They’d pick up as many as 200 people a day and bring them to the “drunk tank,” as it was called. It had a cement floor and a drain. Kevin Foley said people took turns sleeping on the floor.
“In the morning they would open up this big garage door and whoever could walk out, it would be this big long parade of people walking down to Cole Street,” said Foley, Na Nihzhoozhi Center Inc.'s (NCI) executive director.
There were several bars or liquor stores to choose from. Today Kevin Foley said they come here to NCI detox center where they’re given a bed, food and counseling for up to three days. With 26,000 admissions every year, it’s the nation’s busiest treatment center with many repeat customers. And that’s 10,000 fewer people than the drunk tank had three decades ago. (Only 22,670 people live in Gallup.)
When someone is serious about quitting booze, they check into the residential program across the street. That’s what Freddie Smith Jr. did.
He’s been sober eight months. Smith, who is Navajo, said he started partying as a teenager and quickly became an alcoholic and meth addict on the reservation.
“There’s no real opportunities there,” Smith said. “I kind of just lost hope, I think. Nothing big to look forward to. I started drinking regular.”
Half of the tribe is unemployed. Native American youth have the highest rates of alcoholism of any racial group in the country, according to the National Institutes of Health. Studies suggest high rates of addiction in Indian Country stem from two centuries of cultural destruction and violence.
After Smith stole a car and hit bottom, he told his probation officer he was ready to get sober. He came to NCI, where they have medicine men on staff. They use traditional Native American methods like drumming, sweat lodge and tobacco ceremonies.
“It’s kinda like a form of medication and prayer,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of power behind those songs and prayers. It hits you deep inside and keeps me on the right path.”
The detox center was the result of a major group effort in 1989. After a string of fatal alcohol-related accidents, more than 200 people got together and marched from Gallup to Santa Fe to ask state lawmakers for help.
David Conejo led that effort. Today he’s the hospital’s CEO.
“The people on the street we can step over them or do something about it,” Conejo said.
The march worked. Gallup received enough federal funds to open NCI, $400,000 from Indian Health Services.
Conejo also started a treatment program at the hospital. NCI has run into financial and legal trouble, and it’s needed the city, county and Navajo and Zuni Pueblo tribes to help them out.
“We quit working in silos,” Conejo said. “And we’re not looking at ‘hey I want to be the one to get credit for this seminar.’ We give credit to everybody what different does it make? I think, that singular factor is what’s making a big difference right now.”
Gallup also changed its laws. No more drive-up liquor store windows, no liquor is sold on Sundays. Cashiers and bartenders are now better trained to refrain from selling to people who are already drunk. And McKinley County became the first county in the state to approve a liquor excise tax that provides $600,000 a year for abuse prevention and education.
Today, Freddie Smith Jr. is an artist and a behavioral health tech for NCI. He brings people into detox, pats them down for weapons or contraband and shows them to their bed.
“I tell 'em ... ‘Hey, I was headed on the same path you were and look where I’m at,'” Smith said. “‘Oh, you think you’re better? No, you can help yourself. It’s all up to you. If you need help ask for it. Don’t be afraid. That’s what I was I think I was afraid.'”
Since the 1980s, the number of people freezing to death has dropped significantly in McKinley County. But the number of alcohol-related deaths — both disease and accidents — is still three times the national average.