► LaFever’s, “Empowering Native Americans”

LaFever, Marcella. “Empowering Native Americans: Communication, Planning, and Dialogue for Eco-Tourism in Gallup, New Mexico.” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 4, No. 2 (May 2011): 127-145.

Reviewed by Karyn Denny

Marcella LaFever’s article, Empowering Native Americans: Communication, Planning, and Dialogue for Eco-Tourism in Gallup, New Mexico, focuses on a community planning effort to expand an existing hiking trail into an eco-friendly loop trail around Pyramid Peak in Gallup, NM (134). This unique effort involved representatives from local governments and agencies, and the Churchrock Chapter House, which is a local inter-governmental branch within the Navajo Nation. These representatives came together to devise a plan that would help “replace a culture of exploitation” (134). The culture of the indigenous people in Gallup has been exploited by tourist businesses for many decades and now there’s a lot of interest from the community to put an end to it.

LaFever came into the planning process to “conduct a communicative assessment” where she interviewed participants, reviewed her findings, and came up with recommendations for the community for the Pyramid Peak project (134). LaFever identified three strategic communication theories of public dialogue, which are communicative action, insurgent historiography, and spatial production (130). In dealing with this kind of situation, each theory focuses on public participation as an opportunity for public dialogue and meaning making for marginalized communities (130-131).

Background of Gallup, NM:

LaFever calculated the percentage of the population to show diversity in Gallup. The population included the Navajo Nation, Hopi, and Zuni and Laguna Pueblos. LaFever calculated that 37%, where Navajo and the White population was 45%, and Hispanic/Latino population was 35% (133). LaFever also recognized the community’s unique government structure; the McKinley County Council, the City of Gallup (COG), and the Churchrock Chapter House, in which they all played a significant role in the public planning process (133).

Communicative Action Means Equal Voice:

LaFever’s communicative action approach emphasizes on how community members can speak openly in a designated space for a certain amount of time. LaFever used the Habermas theory of communicative action where “citizens have equal opportunity and equal voice,” which in this case, the Gallup community members were given the “time and space” to talk about their difficulties with “exclusion and exploitation” within their community (131).

Meetings took place several times at different places in and around Gallup, which gave community members an opportunity to speak. At one meeting, LaFever mentioned how a non-native speaker told her to give the microphone to a Navajo after he spoke. LaFever immediately assumed that there was a dominant and non-dominant presence among the community members in the meeting. LaFever called this situation a “counter public enclave,” where community members who have a history of clashing operate a certain way to “avoid negative actions towards themselves” (136). When this happens, good relations are not formed, but they become separate and distinct cultures and/or groups (136).

Insurgent Historiography: A Stand Against Oppression:

The second theory that LaFever focuses on is insurgent historiography, in which this theory was developed from a postcolonial perspective that stresses the need “to have knowledge, understanding, and act against oppression and powerlessness in the context of colonialism” (132). LaFever asserts that this theory can empower marginalized groups like the indigenous community in Gallup and help them reclaim and sustain their culture by taking it back and learn how to withdraw from participating and/or putting up with the exploitive practices that businesses use to boost tourism in Gallup. LaFever stated that marginalized communities need to be educated about their oppression in order to gain empowerment and use resistance to suppress the exploitation of their culture (132). These groups also need to be able to think critically about their oppression and be able to make effective decisions that lead them out of their situation.

LaFever recognized that the Churchrock Chapter House meetings needed to be given a higher priority in their planning process since they were at the center of contention and insurgent historiography would be perfect for this process (137). From the meetings at the chapter house, LaFever learned that there were previous efforts “by Native Americans to empower themselves,” but they were not successful as the commodification of the indigenous cultures was deeply rooted into the community, which made it difficult to form a strong resistance against cultural exploitation (137).

LaFever provided an example where a business owner stated that he wanted to hire young Navajo men and women who were friendly to wear their traditional clothing to work, greet tourists, dance for them, and act as ambassadors for their people (137-138). It is clear that businesses that cater to tourists are exploiting and profiting off the labor and culture of the Navajo people. LaFever gathered data on these instances, which helped her to question whether the Pyramid Peak project was for local residents or visitors (138). Based on her findings, LaFever felt that the Navajo community members needed to be taken more seriously by the dominant community members. LaFever stated that she met a man who felt that sidewalks in Gallup served the community and a hiking trail outside of the community didn’t serve the community, but it served visitors and/or tourists (138).

LaFever’s third theory called spatial production is useful when making important decisions about the community’s needs. Spatial production was used in the Pyramid Peak project to decide whether or not the hiking trail loop would be appropriate for the community. LaFever learned that the County of Gallup wanted to “develop a tourism plan” that would use the whole county, but the Navajos became concerned when it involved crossing onto to their land and so boundaries became an issue (138). LaFever realized that there were two different views about land in which Navajos felt that the trail should not go onto their land and the COG couldn’t understand why. LaFever discussed how Navajo Allottees have land that is held in a trust relationship with the U.S. government and it is not up to them to decide who can use the land. In order for COG to create a trail on Navajo land, they would need to get approval from the Department of Interior and have to meet specific criteria (139). It was clear that the 300 Allottees chose to keep their land off limits and only available for sheep and grazing. LaFever stated that the Navajos valued their land and their non-consent to build a trail that went through their land was their “continued struggle to appropriate, use, dominate, control, and produce their own space” (139).


Ultimately, the Pyramid Peak Project didn’t go through, but it was an important opportunity for the representatives from local governments and agencies, and the Churchrock Chapter House to meet and listen to the community members of Gallup. Dominant and non-dominant voices were heard and I believe that everyone involved learned how to speak in a public dialogue. The Navajo people in the community were able to gather together, speak their mind, regain empowerment, and resist against putting up a trail on their land. The dominant community members were able to see what problems they create with the indigenous community and they learned the importance of space (boundaries) and that they need to rethink how they view the diverse community in Gallup. They also need to consider changing their business tactics in a way that it doesn’t exploit and hurt the indigenous community. All three theories suggest that community members need to meet and participate in the planning processes of economic development in their community. Non-dominant (marginalized) communities need to learn about their oppression and gain empowerment so that they learn how to resist against further oppression. Lastly, space is viewed differently in indigenous communities and so there needs to be more research done in order to understand how to work with communities like Gallup so that everyone benefits.