The Route 66 town of Gallup, New Mexico, again finds itself in the news — this time, nationally — after the Associated Press focused on the abnormal number of exposure deaths there during the winter months.
The news service put together these facts:
Fourteen people succumbed to the cold between October 2014 and April, setting the city’s hypothermia death rate at 64 deaths for every 100,000 people last year, authorities said. The rate far outpaced the national average of about 0.5 hypothermia deaths per 100,000 people.
So far this cold season, at least four deaths in McKinley County, which includes Gallup, are being investigated as potential hypothermia cases, officials said.
Think of it — Gallup’s number of deaths from exposure is nearly 130 times the national average.
The basic reason it’s happening is because members of the local Najavo Indian tribe buy booze from one of the many liquor stores in town, get drunk, pass out in a ditch or a field and freeze to death.
The problem has gotten so bad, local police recently have resorted to checking culverts and vacant lots on cold nights to keep the number of exposure deaths from getting worse.
The problem springs from deep roots:
Gallup is best known for its Southwest and Navajo jewelry shops and as a former location for Hollywood westerns. Dozens of vintage, neon signs for restaurants and low-slung motels illuminate the city’s main streets, throwbacks to a time when historic Route 66 brought a steady stream of cross-country travelers.
That era – from the 1930s to the early-1960s – also saw liquor establishments flourish. “One of the things that will never change in Gallup is the alcohol,” Smith said. “The drinking, the liquor licenses aren’t going away because they are how this city survives.”
The Indian Country Today newspaper has kept a close eye on Gallup’s problems for a while. Less than a year ago, it reported Gallup has 39 liquor licenses — which is a rate of 19 per 10,000 people. That rate is higher than many large American cities.
Gallup also ranks as the most dangerous city in New Mexico, Many observers also think the rise in exposure deaths is linked to the recent passage of a anti-panhandling ordinance.
A nonprofit detox center such as the Na’Nizhoozhi Center tries to address the problem but lacks consistent funding and suffers from hot-potato administrating.
The problem, obviously, with the Navajos is deeper than just alcoholism. I wrote in January:
If you’ve endured centuries of genocide, displacement … and accusations of being subhuman, you’re bound to endure deep problems with alcohol or drug abuse in later generations. One can simply look at Australia’s treatment of Aborigines — and what happened next — as a parallel.
It’s long been clear the city or Navajo Nation cannot or will not address the problem. So it probably will be up to the state or federal government to declare a public-health emergency in Gallup and give the help that’s desperately needed.
(Image from Gallup, New Mexico, by Ken Lund via Flickr)