Native dancers want Arizona gallery owner held on hate crime

Native American dancers who were the target of a suburban Phoenix gallery owner’s racist rant as they were being filmed for Super Bowl week are pushing for hate crime charges

Terry Tang
Friday 10 February 2023 21:51 GMT

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Native American dancers who were the target of a suburban Phoenix gallery owner's racist rant as they were being filmed for Super Bowl week are pushing for hate crime charges.

Gilbert Ortega Jr., the owner of Gilbert Ortega Native American Galleries, has been charged with three misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct regarding the incident, Scottsdale police said.

Cody Blackbird, a dancer and flutist who filmed the man's tirade, said his group doesn't feel safe. The confrontation has ruined what should have been a celebratory week.

“Us performers are now going in different entrances and parking in different places. This man is known,” Blackbird said. “There’s a 10-year-old girl who was there. She’s forever imprinted with ‘This is what happened when the Super Bowl came to town.’”

The confrontation happened Tuesday afternoon in Old Town Scottsdale, which has been seeing a high volume of visitors in town for the big game and the Phoenix Open. Ten dancers were performing in front of the Native Art Market on Main Street. ESPN was filming the group in the store and then had them pose outside by a Super Bowl sign.

That's when Ortega started yelling at them, Blackbird said. In the video, Ortega can be seen mocking them and yelling “you (expletive) Indians” at one point.

His shop was closed Friday, and a listed number appears to not be in a service. There was no immediate response to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

In Arizona, there is no law specific to a hate crime itself. It can be used as an aggravating circumstance in the commission of a crime where the motive was bias against a victim's race, religion, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability.

Disorderly conduct does not qualify for a hate crime designation under the FBI's definition, according to Scottsdale authorities. The FBI website describes a hate crime as “often a violent crime, such as assault, murder, arson, vandalism, or threats to commit such crimes.”

Blackbird, who is of Eastern Band Cherokee and Dakota descent, said some Navajo performers heard Ortega make threats in their language that had violent and sexual innuendos. He also alleges Ortega charged at them and had to be physically restrained. He said he doesn't see why it's not being treated as a hate crime.

“That’s what it’s seeming like, which really creates some horrible precedents, dangerous precedents,” Blackbird said.

Meanwhile, the video has gained traction on social media and brought unwanted attention to Scottsdale. Mayor David Ortega, who is not related to the gallery owner, called his behavior “reprehensible and inexcusable.”

“The behavior exhibited by this individual saddens and disgusts the people of our community," David Ortega said in a statement.

The business is associated with a larger group of stores known for selling Native American items in the Southwest. The owner of Ortega’s on the Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said Ortega is a distant relative but their store has never been affiliated with him.

“The family and employees of Ortega’s on the Plaza in Santa Fe condemn racism and discrimination in all forms,” Janelle Ortega said in a statement Thursday. “Furthermore, we consider it a great honor to carry and showcase the work of Indigenous artists and a privilege to support them in other important public and personal endeavors.”

Blackbird said there are growing calls on social media for artists to boycott. It's a reminder that racism is present even among people whose business hinges on Native and Indigenous people, he added.

“That’s always been a thing in the Indian trader world,” Blackbird said. “They don’t care about the people that are making the items they’re selling and redesigning."

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