When Native American people move to Albuquerque from more rural parts of the state, some say the transition can be tough. And a community center that provides basic resources is in danger of shutting its doors.
Last year, farmers on the Navajo Nation were coping with a sudden water shortage—caused by the Animas River disaster upstream—and Elizabeth McKenzie realized she was waiting for someone else to take the first steps in solving the problem. If everyone did that, she said, nothing would get accomplished.
So she loaded up a truck with water donations and drove it out there.
McKenzie is working to help the Albuquerque Indian Center, which is on tenuous financial footing. The center has for decades helped a lot of urban Native Americans secure better living conditions. "Around the New Year, yeah, I heard about the possibility of it shutting its doors," she said.
The nonprofit initially estimated that it could survive only through February. But thanks to private donations, that timeline has been extended a few more months.
"It’s something that I believe in so much, for it to be so close to closing, it just got a huge emotional reaction out of me," she said.
We stood in the stage room of the Launchpad, a rock club in Downtown Albuquerque, on Wednesday, Feb. 3. Bands were setting up for the benefit show McKenzie organized. She said a lot of people who move to Albuquerque from more rural areas come to the center for resources. "Their whole families come, and it’s a lot more difficult than they anticipate to try and keep their family going," she said.
The Albuquerque Indian Center is located in the heart of the International District, a poorer neighborhood in southeastern part of the city, and Gillian Willis said that’s a big part of why it’s useful. She works there. "There’s a lot of people in our area that are experiencing poverty, and most of the people there don’t really have the basic resources of mail, of phone, copies—everything like that," she said.
Willis does things like help folks who are unfamiliar with computers create email addresses and type up résumés for job searches. Just a couple of weeks ago, she helped several people find work. But the center offers something more to its clients, she said: Respect. "Because we’re actually friendly, and we treat everybody like our brothers and sisters when they come in through that door. It is important for somebody to come through our and be proud to be Native American."
Edward McKenzie, who is Elizabeth’s dad, said finding camaraderie can be a security issue for Natives living on the streets. "At least they have a place to go, and you know, they know each other," he said. "They know who’s safe to be around. And I think that’s important."
After the brutal and senseless killing of two homeless Navajo men in 2014, safety concerns were in the spotlight. McKenzie said folks make connections at the center so they’re less vulnerable. "They’re here alone, and they have each other to be with and hopefully be safe with, and, you know, when somebody’s in a situation where they’re homeless and don’t have people to be around, they’re in danger," he said.
As people arrived at the benefit show, they crowded around tables to check out raffle prizes, and helpers circulated with buckets of tickets for sale. Three bands took the stage, all of them pretty heavy, and all of them featuring Native musicians.
I caught up with Heather Price, singer and bass player for Lilith, behind the club as she loaded out her gear. She said the move from the Navajo Nation to other cities can be kind of a culture shock. "From going to owning a house and owning land that you don’t have to pay for to coming here where you have to pay for everything," she said, "it’s a huge change. You kinda just don’t know."
And she’s familiar with that change, because a few years ago she left Four Corners area to live in Santa Fe.
"Traditionally," Price said, "it’s kind of frowned upon to ask for help—especially from government. And we have a lot of trust issues. And I think having a place just for Native Americans is very important because they feel safe."
At the end of the night, the contributions were tallied, and the benefit raised just about $2,000 for the Albuquerque Indian Center.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Con Alma Health Foundation. Find it online at publichealthnm.org.