Summer in the Southwest: An Exploration of the Legal Challenges faced by the Local Native American Communities

Widespread unemployment, drug and substance abuse, suicide, lack of quality education—these are just a few examples of the social and systemic challenges faced by those living within the Navajo Nation. They are the same problems experienced by a majority, if not all, Native American communities in the United States. Yet there are only a limited number of nonprofit legal aid organizations that provide free legal services primarily to Native Americans residing on reservations, one being DNA-People’s Legal Services, where I worked as a PHRGE Fellow last summer.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico

What is remarkable about DNA-People’s Legal Services is not only its mission to provide civil legal services to those in need, but perhaps more importantly, to promote tribal sovereignty and respect the diverse cultures of the organization’s various clients. During my fellowship, I not only had the privilege of working on matters with licensed attorneys in New Mexico courts, but I also completed tasks for licensed attorneys and tribal advocates within the Jicarilla-Apache and Navajo Nation.

One issue that immediately came to my attention from the first week of the fellowship and recurred throughout the remainder of my summer was the predatory practices of lenders and dealerships situated among the border-towns of the Navajo Nation. A main target of these predatory schemes were elderly, non-English speaking Navajos. As part of my experience with DNA, I had the opportunity to meet with one such victim at her rural residence on the Navajo Nation outside of Farmington, New Mexico. A widowed woman of about eighty years of age, fluent in Navajo and non-English speaking, related her story of the predatory acts taken by a local car dealership.

Though her husband had cancer caused by working at a uranium mine, which would otherwise entitle her to benefits, the mine’s staff are unresponsive to requests for compensation, leaving the widow to subsist on a meager income. A higher income was falsely reported on a credit application used to get the widow a new truck so that her son could transport the firewood needed to heat her home for the winter. Moreover, it was an income that any reasonable care salesman would know that the woman could not afford. Yet the salesman promised that the woman could afford the truck, despite her severely limited income. It was a truck sold to a woman who had never obtained a driver’s license and whose driving experience was limited to operating a truck in a sheep camp on the Navajo Nation in her late teens and early twenties.

Though we were fortunately able to alleviate her legal issues with regards to the predatory lending practices, this story is not anomaly. The prevalence of such businesses near the Navajo Nation exemplify that predatory schemes are an implicit norm. A norm that magnifies the challenges faced by southwestern Native American communities and illustrates one of many modern legal and social challenges faced by the most historically oppressed, and too often forgotten, community in the United States.

-Chelsea Brisbois, JD Candidate 2016



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