Over the past Christmas holiday, I visited several family members who live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While traveling to the high desert, I started reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—a landmark history that chronicles, in excruciating detail, how European settlers treated the indigenous peoples they encountered in America. I’d always looked forward to my trips to New Mexico. I loved visiting the Native-American historical sites and talking with the Navajo people who sell their handmade jewelry in the town square. But this time, having better understood our relationship to them, I felt ashamed to be ancestrally linked to people who had so disregarded Native Americans’ most basic human rights.
Our modern approach isn’t much better. Native Americans are often dismissed as “other” in surveys; they didn’t get their current, most accurate U.S. census category until 2000. The government has acted as if Native people, sequestered on their reservations, are no longer part of this nation that once was theirs. But HIV has found them, even if the government has not. While we were discounting them, they were watching the numbers of new HIV infections among their people rise. And, as we have seen happen in other marginalized social and ethnic groups, the rate of HIV infection will rise exponentially as long as we ignore the fact that the epidemic has pervaded yet another subset of our populace.
Like African-American and Latino people, Native Americans face unique complications when trying to tackle AIDS prevention, education and care. The shame and stigma of HIV can be compounded by ancient beliefs and lack of knowing how best to communicate HIV information to a people who, understandably, are reluctant to trust the establishment.
Which is why people like Kory Montoya, the New Mexico Apache man on our cover, are essential. Willing to come forward with his HIV-positive status, Montoya is a powerful force for awareness, education, prevention and advocacy. Speaking to and on behalf of Native-American people, he reminds those willing to listen that the spread of HIV does not respect any boundary and will go wherever there is a biological host, regardless of the host’s skin color, sexual orientation, age, gender or belief system. It will even find its way onto the reservation.
Montoya tells of journeying back to his own reservation, hoping to receive the support of his family. His mother, discovering Montoya on her front porch, shut the door in his face. As a person who also lives with HIV and the constant fear of rejection, I felt pain reading how he’d been shut out.
What amazes me about people like Montoya, whom I first met in 2006 at “Staying Alive,” the conference sponsored by the National Association of People With AIDS in New Orleans, is how they summon the fortitude to serve a larger family—that of the HIV community—even when they are rejected by their own.
I hope Montoya’s mother will soon realize the positive effect he is having on so many people living with HIV, as well his efforts to keep others from contracting the disease. I wish pride in her son’s work will help her overcome whatever it is that keeps her from embracing him.
This is one of the great joys of editing this magazine—bringing to light the stories of people who, whether calculated by the census bureau or not, deserve to be seen, and whose work unequivocally counts.