DENVER—A red/brown divide may be perceived in some places but it’s based on a misconception, according to Colorado’s new lieutenant governor and head of both the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and the Department of Education.
Joseph Garcia said the Native/Hispanic split occurs when people believe the economic pie is limited and they are competing for the same shrinking resources.
“Ultimately, each group needs to turn to the other,” he said. “They are mostly mixed people in each group and they are both people in need. If anything, we need to make the pie bigger, rather than having competing pies.”
He hails from northern New Mexico, and “most Spanish people down there have indigenous blood—we largely blend into each others’ cultures in many ways,” said Garcia, who came to state government from the presidency of Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Garcia’s hometown is Espanola, near Santa Fe, founded in 1598 by Don Juan de Onate, a Spaniard who used to be honored with his own festival—a festival now supplanted by the annual Espanola Festival, he said. Garcia has in-laws at nearby Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.
The red/brown issue “has deep historical roots here (in Espanola)—Hispanics, for example, are in an area that has long bragged about its centuries-old Spanish heritage, but now there is the recognition that early Spanish explorers were also brutally repressive individuals when it came to Native populations.”
Mutually respectful cultural exchange has been “rocky at times,” he said, even in communities where there is the opportunity for interaction. In northern New Mexico, the Native population often includes Spanish surnames and many people have relatives of Native heritage, in a “more complex relationship” than may exist elsewhere.
In his statutory role as CCIA head, he said his primary goal is “to help in any way the tribal governments strengthen their own economies, because if tribes are successful it benefits the state. If unemployment goes down, it benefits the state.”
Colorado today has two tribal nations within its borders, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe headquartered in Ignacio, and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Towaoc, both in the southwestern part of the state.
Wearing the CCIA hat can overlap with his Department of Education leadership hat, because of Garcia’s belief in the need for Native, Hispanic/Latino, and African-American youth to get a higher education, especially in light of current high dropout rates.
“My life is very different than that of my extended family in northern New Mexico,” he told his first CCIA quarterly meeting. “It’s great for young people to stay in Indian country, but they can’t do it without education.”
“We need to do a better job of convincing families that there is a value to pursuing a higher education,” that it is affordable, and that it need not mean separation from family “because family is important,” he said.
One Indian-specific issue he noted in an interview may prove a problem for cash-strapped state legislators.
Last year at this time state lawmakers targeted a funding formula for some Native students receiving free tuition at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., a former Indian boarding school, where the state reimbursement rate for their tuition came under fire as the state coffers ran low. Their free tuition is part of a federal trust commitment.
About $360,000 was reimbursed for 120 in-state Native students in 2009 and $10 million was reimbursed for 633 out-of-state Native students in that year, college officials said. Garcia said out-of-state reimbursement rates for Native tuition constitute an issue that “will continue to come up” as Colorado taxpayers and lawmakers confront budget realities.