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Rodney Barker discusses experiences in writing 1993 book

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FARMINGTON — It's been nearly 30 years since Rodney Barker penned a book about the horrific murders of three Navajo men here in 1974 by a trio of white Farmington High School students.

Although the investigative journalist has occasionally returned to Farmington since then, his visit to the city this time seemed like a good opportunity to chart the community's progress since that ugly incident, he said.

"I was excited to see, had the community changed? Had it learned from the past? Was it stuck in the past?" Barker told students, faculty members and visitors that morning during an assembly at Rocinante High School.

Barker, author of the 1993 true-crime book "The Broken Circle: A True Story of Murder and Magic in Indian Country" that chronicled the murders and their aftermath, issued a mixed verdict on those questions during his 90-minute presentation at Rocinante.

In some ways, it appears to him as if Farmington has made some notable progress, he said, noting the improved communication between the Native community and police, the efforts to diversify the economy and the greater racial diversity in employment and schools.

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But in other areas, Barker, a Denver resident, said he detected reasons for concern. There seems to be an attitude here that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, he said, meaning many people believe the murders were an isolated incident, and nothing like that could ever happen again in Farmington.

Barker characterized that attitude as "a dangerous complacency" and urged his audience to be on guard against it.

"There are a lot of people who believe Farmington is not a safe place, still, for Navajo," he said.

Sorting through the past

Barker described his experiences in writing the book, noting the high degree of cooperation he received from local residents, law enforcement officials and others while conducting his research. He said that after years of suppressing their thoughts on the incident, it seemed to him that people were almost eager to vent their feelings and sort through their memories.

He explained that his goal in writing the book was to provide a historic, "official" account of what happened for future generations. And even though his book was published nearly three decades ago, he said it continues to make waves.

He noted during an interview after his presentation that in recent years, various filmmakers have expressed interest in bringing the story to the big screen and that he recently was interviewed by a history student who was devoting part of his doctoral thesis to the subject.

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He said he also appreciated being approached by officials of Leadership San Juan — a local organization dedicated to identifying, enlightening and encouraging local leaders of diverse backgrounds — and Rocinante teacher Seth Levine about returning to Farmington this weekend to discuss his perspectives on his book in a series of appearances.

Barker said he formed his concerns about the current state of thinking in Farmington partly after communicating with a handful of local residents. The most alarming exchange he had was with a local white high school student who had just read Barker's book and acknowledged that, despite being raised here, it was the first he had heard of the murders.

The student explained that what he read had forever changed his perspective on his hometown. He also revealed that he had personally witnessed the beatings of local Native men by some of his peers and that he had been coerced by his friends into going along with them when those attacks took place.

"That was really depressing to hear," Barker said.

The author said it was not his intent in writing the book to cast a vindictive, harsh light on Farmington.

"I did not want to appeal to just one point of view," he said.

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The murders and the social unrest that followed — capped by a chaotic confrontation between police and Navajo protestors on Main Street in downtown Farmington months later, during which a young Barker was arrested after kicking a tear gas cannister toward police — were typical of what you might expect from such a racially charged situation, he said.

But Barker had another motive for writing the book. He wanted to create nuanced portraits of the victims, essentially giving them back the humanity that had been stolen from them after they were brutally murdered and their bodies mutilated.

"I wanted to bring a literary perspective to what happened," he said.

Hoping for another step

The presentation and an ensuing question-and-answer period drew a full house to the Rocinante gym. Barker responded to a question from a Native student by explaining that he hopes his book and his appearance at the school prompt local young people to take the next step by organizing a group that might be interested in creating a memorial for victims of racial violence, or simply establishing a dialog about how such acts have continued to take place.

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The student drew the event's largest round of applause when she proclaimed that at racially diverse Rocinante, established in the 1970s as the Farmington Municipal School District's "alternative" high school for students with various personal issues, "We love everybody."

Barker smiled broadly at that characterization and responded with perhaps the day's most pointed remark.

"It's not lost on me that it's Rocinante having me here, not Farmington High School," he said.

Barker also was asked if he believes his book should be taught in all local high schools.

"Absolutely," he said, prompting another hearty round of applause. "I have to think it's touching people still. It has a resonance."

Levine, a Rocinante English, history and business teacher who urged his students to begin a dialog with Barker two years ago by writing letters to him about his book, said promoting cultural awareness is a big part of how the community will heal the scars of the 1974 killings.

"At Rocinante, that's our mission," he said. "We teach awareness, tolerance and love. We want to lift our community up and become better versions of ourselves while we're doing it."

Vicki Whitaker, a former teacher at the school who attended the presentation, said she has always believed literature is key to that mission.

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"Storytelling has the capacity to charge hearts, to shape minds," she said.

Peter Deswood, the school's principal, said he was pleased about how the assembly seemed to empower students and gave them a voice in an issue that affects many of them directly.

"These are difficult conversations to have, but they are discussions that need to happen," he said.

Barker said afterward he was pleased by the level of interest Rocinante students showed in his comments and added he hoped they found his work inspirational.

"For kids who may be looking for a way to belong to something bigger than themselves, to give themselves the opportunity to do that, it's extremely gratifying," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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