Mountain Biking in “The Most Patriotic City in America” and “The Indian Capital of the World”

I was in Gallup, New Mexico recently for a mountain bike race, and when a mass of shiny Toyota Tundras with $8,000 mountain bikes in tow descend upon the town, the town’s poverty (by American standards, at least) is pretty apparent. The image of “have” and “have not” is striking: $50,000 trucks and Sprinter vans juxtaposed with a little vomit in the parking lot, a handful of closed street fronts, and a smattering of dilapidated apartments. I’m not trying to say that all people in Gallup are poor (about 20% live below the national poverty line), and that all people who mountain bike are rich (some amount of disposable income is necessary to participate), but what I am saying, is the legacy of colonialism–and postcolonial attempts to revitalize Gallup–run deep in this town. It gives Gallup a mysterious feeling, and the mountain biking scene only adds to the social and economic complexity of the area.

The single track around Gallup is some of the best I have ridden in the southwest, and it has grown out of the community’s dedication to revitalizing the area. The Gallup Trails alliance, the organization behind the Zuni Mountain trail system and the High Desert Trail system, “believes that creating a variety of accessible trails improves the quality of life for all citizens through health and economic benefits.” For more information on this awesome organization, and on the awesome single track they build, visit their website.

With the rising interest in mountain biking in the area Gallup has been trying out a new slogan: “The Adventure Capital of New Mexico.” This is what the Gallup Trail alliance calls the town, and also the phrase Zia Rides (the organization hosting the bike race I attended) call the area. But Gallup has two other slogans as well: “The Most Patriotic City in America” and “The Indian Capital of the World.” To the average tourist driving through Gallup along the I-40, evidence of Gallup’s patriotism is not overtly apparent, but–then again–neither is the amazing mountain biking and single track. The patriotic slogan is painted in big letters on signs along the city limit, and the slogan is also the first thing the city’s website reminds visitors of, complete with an American flag and an eagle planted behind the phrase. The other slogan, about Gallup being “The Indian Capital of the World,” is boasted less around the town (it is mentioned as a side note on the city’s history page), but to anyone who has spent a glimmer of time in the southwest–or at least looked at a map of the southwest–this piece of Gallup’s identity is pretty obvious. Gallup is a bubble of colonialism surrounded by reservation land on every side. According to the city’s website, 43% of the town’s population is Native American, which means 43% of the people in the town are living in the backlash of the United State’s forced assimilation.

Last week, I read a chapter called Dissemination” from Homi Bhabha’s book The Location of Culture about the importance of telling history through the experiences of marginalized people, and I kept thinking about Gallup. In many ways, the town is trying to tell the story of the native people in the area. The town hosts nightly Native American dances in the Courthouse Square throughout the summer, and the race I attended–directed by a Gallup local–gave out Kachina dolls as trophies. Although one might read into these trophies something about the commercialization of native cultures and beliefs, I chose to see it as a shout out to the racers–a sort of, “hey, glad you came, and don’t forget to thank the people who live here and hosted this event.” But even as I write this, I’m second guessing that thought. Maybe the Kachina doll trophies are an example of turning a piece of Hopi and Zuni culture into a spectacle. Gallup’s attempts at postcolonial revitalization leave a lot of my questions about the place unanswered.

The Kachina doll trophy I won at Dawn to Dusk in Gallup, New Mexico. Also pictured is a bowl of french fries (recovery food?) and a journal with a recent publication (it arrived the day of the race).

In case you didn’t believe me the first time: the mountain biking around Gallup is really, really good. In fact, it’s so good that I am headed there for another race this weekend. On Friday, I will pass by the “Most Patriotic Town in America” welcome signs, and after four hours of driving from Flagstaff, I will most likely be in need of a strong cup of coffee (preferably an Americano). But I just heard from a friend that The Coffee House–Gallup’s downtown coffee shop–closed, so I am not sure what I am going to do. Even though the coffee was not very good, I really enjoyed The Coffee House on my last trip to Gallup because of the elements of postcolonialism it embodied. Here’s a helpful definition for postcolonial: a “situation marked by the dismantling of traditional institutions of colonial power.” The definition is from David Spurr’s The Rhetoric of Empire, and I think it works well to explain Gallup’s mishmash of slogans, as well as the town’s now-closed coffee shop.

The chalkboard outside The Coffee House, and the artwork on the walls inside gave the place impression of your average hip coffee shop, but when I visited several months ago I was clearly the only one in the cafe looking for that experience. Besides the barista, there were only two other people inside: a man with two milk jugs filled with water and an army green duffle bag, and a teenager with earbuds in his ears starring at a tiny smartphone screen. Neither of them were drinking coffee. I couldn’t help but think that in a more traditional coffee shop, perhaps in a more gentrified town, neither of these people would have been welcome. But when the man with the two-gallon milk jugs of water asked the barista for a glass of water, she happily complied. Looking through a postcolonial lens, I viewed the interaction as awesomely subversive.The coffee shop did not seem to care if its costumers actually spent money, which is something we don’t often see in the capitalist I-own-the-land-therefore-you-must-pay-to-be-here mentality.

A quote on the coffee shop’s bright purple walls by W.C. Fields also stood out to me. The quote can be found on The Coffee House’s Facebook page, and it goes like this: “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” I thought it was pretty apt for a town bordered by Navajo, Hopi and Zuni reservations–a town in which 43% of the people are commonly called Indians (despite which tribe they actually belong to, despite the fact that the early European explorers chose this term to describe all of them). Which brings me back to Gallup’s slogan of patriotism. Jacques Derrida uses the phrase “the violence of the letter” to describe this particular form of colonialism–colonialism in which one group controls another group through the act of naming and describing.

I can’t help but ask, is Gallup really a patriotic town? It seems to me like the slogan is probably an attempt at masking the legacy of colonialism in the area. David Spurr, an academic who writes on the rhetoric of colonialism, explains it like this: “The very process by which one culture subordinates another begins in the act of naming and leaving unnamed, of marking on an unknown territory the lines of division and uniformity, of boundary and continuity.” If the diverse people of Gallup, New Mexico are united under a love of our great country, then forced assimilation–and what many scholars refer to as genocide–of the United State’s native populations must not have been that bad. I also forgot to mention the United State’s acquisition of New Mexico (the Mexican-American war of 1846). That must not have been so bad either.

This TedTalk spells out the impact–and legacy–of colonization and genocide on Native Americans across the United States. Aaron Huey’s photographs focus on the Lakota and Souix on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, but he provides statistics, and a timeline, encompassing the heart-wrenching history of Native American populations across the country. 

So, I guess what I’m really trying to say is I’m not sold on the patriotism of a town that borders three reservations. I would like to meet more people who live in Gallup. I want to know what the people in the crowded Walmart think. And what the people hitchhiking to and from Gallup think. And what the woman who served me a plate of enchiladas at the Coal Street Pub thinks. But I’m shy, and maybe the personal side of the story isn’t any of my business anyway.

When I’m in Gallup, I’m surrounded by more out-of-town mountain bikers than I am locals. Which brings me back to the beginning of this post: what about Gallup as New Mexico’s Adventure Capital? How does this identity fit into the postcolonial era? It seems to me like it might be a great way to bring tourism into Gallup without making a spectacle of Navajo, Hopi and Zuni cultures. I’ll have to think about it over the weekend. I’ll be riding my bike in circles for 24 hours in the mountains outside of Gallup in the 24 Hours of the Enchanted Forest. That’s a lot of time to spend just thinking.


  1. Katrina


    First, you did a wonderful job of weaving your personal experiences into a thoughtful presentation of academic concepts and philosophical observations on culture in a small New Mexican town. Specifically, I enjoyed your clear, concise and interesting introduction with the comparison between the visitors and the natives…I would love to see more discussion of the contrasting concepts of wealthy visitors taking from the land what they need/want, and leaving the locals to what they have, which truly echoes colonialism of the Native Americans.

    Second, I too began pondering at the slogan, “the most patriotic town in the United States.” While it seemed you interpreted it as the traditional definition of American patriotism, what if it is a reflection of the Native American culture and presence within the town? That is to say, true patriotism is not perhaps a united coherent belief in one’s country, but a deeply rooted community that was here before our current government was even imagined.

    This was a very bold statement, and I would love to see more development of this concept!! “If the diverse people of Gallup, New Mexico are united under a love of our great country, then forced assimilation–and what many scholars refer to as genocide–of the United State’s native populations must not have been that bad.”

    Thanks again for sharing,

    1. chaseelizabeth

      Hi Katrina, thanks for your input! Gallup was established in 1881 around the railroad, twenty-five years after the Mexican-American war, and fifty years after the Indian Removal Act. I’m not sure when the “Most Patriotic City in America” slogan was established, but a motto of patriotism after a history of forcing two groups of people (Mexicans and Native Americans) to the margins seems super fishy–“violence of the letter”–to me. I need to chat up more of the locals at the next race and get their perspective. Sometimes I can be a little shy. Also, did you catch the sarcasm in the sentence, “If the diverse people of Gallup, New Mexico are united under a love of our great country, then forced assimilation–and what many scholars refer to as genocide–of the United State’s native populations must not have been that bad.” The way we continually push the past treatment of Native Americans under the carpet in this country makes me really sad. Maybe I can find a TedTalk on the topic that supports the boldness of the statement.

      Thanks for helping think through this stuff!

  2. Man-from-the Midwest

    Your blog entry this week was very interesting. I traveled through New Mexico a few years ago, and I remember driving by Gallup because I wondered it that was where they got the name for the poll, but that is the extent of my experience in the state. I think you raise some great questions when you consider the moniker “Most Patriotic Town in the U.S.” Is that a consensus made by the entire population or the 57% who are not Native American? Is it a way to recreate the town’s identity so the white population aren’t living in the “Indian capital of the U.S.”? Your story raises some very good questions, especially in regard to the identity of Native Americans.

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