Kids, Trauma and Justice in a Native Border Town


Of all racial groups in the United States, Native Americans have the highest per capita rate of violent victimization.

“We see the same kids victimized over and over and over again,” said Rose Jergens, who directs the accredited Four Corners Child Advocacy Center in a Southwest Colorado reservation border town.

Reversing that cycle is difficult, in part because it runs in the family.

Teaching traumatized kids to imagine a better world is more difficult among Native teens because of generational impacts of pain and loss, Jergens said.

“Unless there is something in our lives that lets us know that this wrong, then the trauma just keeps repeating,” she said.

The Native youths whom Jergens advises witness daily traumas; and the neglect, sexual abuse and domestic violence on the reservation, she said, are often viewed as normal. Although counseling can help to reverse the outcome, Jergens said it's impossible without self-determination and support from others.

Making matters worse, the road to recovery is sparse with resources.

Cortez, a town of 8,500 people 19 miles north of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation, lacks vital holistic trauma treatments. Child protective services, for example, are limited to helping troubled teens. Officials must wait for serious physical or sexual abuse before they intervene.

Jergens said local officials, agency leaders, parents and the community at-large must make a concerted effort to balance their specific roles while paying more attention to a child's needs.

“We're just sitting here waiting for them to be old enough to commit their first crime because we aren't doing anything to help them when they are young,” Jergens said.

A vanguard on the frontlines

Helping to raise awareness and lift Native voices, 26-year-old Antonio “Tones” Herrera, of Ignacio, Colo., received a Nammy for Best Rap/Hip Hop recording at last fall's 15th Annual Native American Music Awards. A reservation poet, Herrera's paternal roots represent the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, a neighbor to the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, headquartered in Towaoc, Colo.

Herrera said he can't count the times he and his peers witnessed negative, life-altering events that “normal kids” never see.

His point is validated by the recent Indian Law and Order Commission report, which stated that Native children were disproportionately exposed to violence and poverty.

The report further revealed that Indian communities often lack access to funding for mental health and other support resources, and the compounding effects of these realities make Native children susceptible to entry into the juvenile justice system.

Herrera added that he had experienced numerous confrontations with border town police agencies. Although overt racism may no longer be “in your face,” he said, the undercurrent of prejudice remains.

“The police automatically assume something is wrong, and they don't stop until they find it,” Herrera said. “To say that racial profiling or bias has disappeared is complete ignorance.”

Ute official addresses bias

To move past generations of mistrust and racial bias, Ute Mountain Ute attorney Peter Ortego said tribal members and border towns must collaborate. Treating others with respect is paramount to reaching amicable solutions, he said.

“Over time, I think we will see a lot of those fears and distrust start to fade away. We have to work together to understand our passions, our faults and our expertise to figure out a way to build those synergies.”

Natives who loathe whites likely have few interactions with whites. The same is likely true for whites who are wary of Natives.

Ortego, a non-Native from Louisiana, has witnessed progress over the past 15 years as an attorney for the Ute Mountain Utes. In 2000, more tribal members were killed annually than those who received college degrees, for example, and border town leaders routinely made “hostile” comments towards the tribe, he said.

Shortly after taking the position as general counsel, Ortego recalled a “very uncomfortable” meeting with a Cortez police chief. At that meeting, Ortego informed the top cop that officers were prejudiced, and the department needed to ensure that it undertook some form of cultural-sensitivity training. Police subsequently have worked to improve relations between law enforcement and tribal members.

“Today, we've seen some real positive outcomes,” Ortego said. “There's still a very long way to go, but we're in a much better place than 15 years ago.”

The school-to-prison pipeline has been identified as a national problem, one that Cortez hasn't avoided. Liaisons at local schools work directly with Native students to address concerns, but Ortego said classroom educators needed to change their state of mind to ensure real progress.

He recalled a story that a southern aunt, a teacher, relayed to him decades ago.

“She told me, 'You have to shake the black kids up every once in a while,'” Ortego recalled. “That thought process is appalling.”

Ortego said he wouldn't be surprised to learn that some border town educators hold the same attitudes toward Native students.

“Teachers need to find the right solutions to the problems,” Ortego said. “We struggle all the time with the bias against us.”

The kids in the hall may not be all right

Addressing the disproportionate number of Native students who are suspended, expelled or referred to law enforcement, Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 School Superintendent Alex Carter said he has never witnessed or received a report of conscious or explicit bias by principals or teachers toward minority students.

He agreed that some personnel might express shades of implicit or unconscious bias, which according to one student, happens too often.

“It just depends on your last name,” the 14-year-old said. “The teachers treat kids different.”

The minority seventh-grader at Cortez Middle School said teachers are biased against Native and Hispanic students and routinely degrade them.

Bright and levelheaded, the student said some educators would blatantly refuse to answer academic questions raised by non-whites.

Evidence of implicit bias was revealed in a district-wide Indian Policies and Procedures report released last fall at the request of Ute Mountain Ute tribal officials.

The data exposed that a disproportionate number of Native youths were disciplined.

Native youths account for about a third of the district's student population; whites, about half.

Data indicate that the numbers are flipped regarding disciplinary actions.

“It's something that concerns me, but I don't have any real answers for you,” Carter said.

Judgment calls determine how students are disciplined, he said, and the district doesn't formally instruct staff on how to manage student punishment.

“There is no system of training in any district that I've ever been a part of on the way to discipline kids,” Carter said. “What I hope for is to hire administrators that have the students' best interest at heart. I hope they use common sense and use every disciplinary matter as a learning experience.”

Last year, Montezuma-Cortez schools reported 349 disciplinary incidents.

Of those, 95 percent resulted in out-of-school suspension, and 5 percent resulted in expulsions. Almost a third of all infractions were referred to law enforcement.

About 85 percent of all disciplinary matters were code of conduct, disobedience and disorderly conduct violations. Of the 52 disorderly conduct infractions, all were referred to law enforcement, and 96 percent received out-of-school suspension.

All 39 reported drug violations were referred to law enforcement, but only 13 percent resulted in expulsion. In comparison, of the 10 alcohol violations, 80 percent were referred to authorities, and 10 percent resulted in expulsions.

Carter said he gets involved and conducts a review hearing with the student, parent and administrator when expulsions were considered.

“Expulsion is the death penalty in education,” he said. “It's a horrible outcome.”

Students with behavioral problems may reach that outcome with little preventive support.

Carter said teachers are encouraged to refer students with social troubles to school counselors.

But since the 2008 recession, the cash-strapped district eliminated most of those positions. Today, they remain largely unfilled, and the district doesn't have a single drug or alcohol counselor.

“We're punishing what needs to be treated way too often,” Carter said. “With added student support, I think we would see less behavioral issues.”

One of the most troubling problems facing Native youths is their exposure to violence and loss. Such exposure may come as a witness, victim or third party to domestic violence, child abuse, homicide, suicide, and sexual crimes.

Carter said that some of the students living with that turmoil disguise or hide their anguish. To help identify the warning signs, middle school teachers took part in a half-day training session at the start of the school year.

“It's a challenge in a region like this where we have a lot of kids dealing with home lives that are not conducive to supporting educational pursuits,” Carter said. “We're stretched thin, but we're trying.”

Counseling goes to the dogs

“He looks like a beat up dog. Every time I see him he looks more and more broken.”

That's how Holden Sneak, a 25-year-old Navajo tribesman described an older cousin who is currently homeless and suffers from extreme alcohol abuse.

“It's heartbreaking,” said Sneak. “I hope I can serve as role model for him.”

Sneak said that same cousin introduced him, at age 14, to alcohol on the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation in Southeast Utah, about an hour drive east of Cortez.

Soon after, Sneak learned that his stepfather wasn't his biological father. His life began to spiral out of control.

“I felt unwanted,” Sneak said. “It was terrible.”

To handle the devastating trauma, Sneak continued drinking – a lot. At age 17, he nearly died.

“I almost went into a coma,” he said.

According to the Indian Law and Order Commission report, binge drinking among Native youths is more common than for any other racial and ethnic group. Natives are more than twice as likely to die as non-Natives through age 24.

Sober for the past four months and employed for nearly three years, Sneak credits a high school behavioral therapist for bringing him back from the brink of despair.

That counselor was Mark Holton, who has helped more than 100 students in Montezuma-Cortez schools.

“If it hadn't been for Mark, I probably would be in jail or dead,” Sneak said. “I never thought I'd make it to be 25.”

To help reach Sneak, Holton relied on Oscar and Miles, his therapy dogs. Miles, a 12-year-old giant, but tender black Labrador retriever, and Oscar, a curious 10-year-old chocolate Lab – help kids like Sneak retrieve their minds.

“The dogs helped me open up,” Sneak said. “It didn't feel like I was talking to a therapist.”

As a troubled teen, Sneak said he felt trapped, as if a giant boot were always pressed against his chest. It was difficult to express his feelings at home. He became so depressed that he too attempted suicide.

“Looking back, I'm still surprised to this day how I got so lucky,” he said. “At times I ask myself, Why me? Why am I luckier than so many others?”

Holton said he was proud of Sneak's accomplishments, and his courage to make the monumental and challenging choice to seek a better life.

“This was a kid that had a mid-life crisis at age 17,” Holton said. “He was a wise soul to reach out for help at such a young age.”

As the stress and anxiety in his life have mellowed, Sneak said he now faces the unfamiliar feeling of opportunity and hope.

“I'm so use to something being wrong,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I feel free.”

EDITORS NOTE: This is an abridged version of a story that appeared in the Cortez Feb 26, 2015. For the full version, please click HERE.

Tobie Baker is a staff writer for the Cortez Journal. This project was completed as part of his 2014-2015 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellowship. He welcomes readers comments.

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