Hungry America

Navajo tacos in Thoreau, NM. The woman who sold the tacos by the roadside said she wasn’t making any money, “I just want to feed the people,” she said. © 2012 Jennifer E. Cooper

So many times it seems the harshest critics of those living in poverty are those who are but a step away. I will never understand why anyone would begrudge someone receiving food stamps while billions are wasted on helping the wealthy avoid paying their fair share of taxes. People need food; they do not need yachts.

There is very real hunger in this country. While at the Gallup flea market I talked to a Navajo woman who told me that while her family was camping near a Taco Bell and working on a job nearby they were about to toss an unfinished bite of a taco when a man came along and asked what she was going to do with the food. When she replied that she was planning to throw it away he asked if he could have it. “I haven’t eaten in two days,” he told her. The woman said she ended up giving some remaining food she had planned to eat later to the man and his wife. “I didn’t eat dinner that day,” she said.

In Thoreau, a checkerboard town of part reservation, part US land, I had my first Navajo taco. The woman who made it said she wasn’t actually making any money selling the tacos. “I just want to feed the people.” Other food vendors lined the roadside in Thoreau. One man gave me a cherry turnover even though I insisted I had just eaten.”Food for the road,” he told me.

But a man I talked with as he rode his bike through Gallup, was convinced that American Indian tribes are living large off the government, “they get water for free,” while he has to pay. “I’m hurting,” he told me. I believed his hardship was very real–roughly 20 percent of Gallup’s population is living in poverty. As a white man in Gallup he is a minority; a fact that makes him very angry. The city is surrounded Navajo, Hopi and Zuni Indian reservations as well as several others. “I just want to be treated the same,” he told me. I didn’t ask if he ever walked through a reservation, if he realized that many Native Americans live in extreme poverty. As I walked through New Mexico time and time again I talked to Native Americans who were living without water or electricity; people who traveled great distances to find work as there were few jobs on the reservations.

A pharmacist I met in Gallup who works for the Indian Health Service’s hospital there told me about a Navajo man who ended up having to have his legs amputated as a result of severe frostbite. His brother stole his space heater and he had no other way to keep warm. Had he come to the hospital sooner his legs may have been saved, but he told the pharmacist that he had been drunk when he’d gotten frostbite and didn’t want to be judged for drinking.

As I walk I’ve hoped to inspire people to bring about change in their community. I’ve since realized that I can only change myself. I will never be able to change the mind of the man who thinks Native Americans are living large off the government. I can only listen to his story and hope that one day he realizes he is spending his life being angry at someone who should instead be his ally. Perhaps in listening to his story, he will be inspired to open his heart, his mind and his eyes, and to let go of his misplaced anger. So on I walk…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper