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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures



I grew up in the Navajo Nation and in Gallup. My parents were white missionaries. After the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman, we witnessed an outpouring of rightful outrage. Then and now, we are reminded about many others whose lives have been violently ended or damaged only because of their skin color. We see and hear the words, "Black Lives Matter." Some people object, saying "All lives matter." Of course they do, but not all lives are in danger the way black and brown lives are. The signs could well say, "Black and Brown Lives Matter," because in the US, police kill Indigenous people at a higher percentage than any other group. These are the people whose lives are in danger from the people who are supposed to serve and protect them.

As a White woman, I have benefited all my life from being White in the US. This looked a little different in the Navajo Nation from how it might have looked in other parts of the country, but without a doubt I benefited because of my skin color. My family always lived in a house with running water. When we lived deep within the Navajo Nation at Teec Nos Pos, Diné people drove miles with horse and wagon to fill their water barrels. It could take all day to do this, while we simply turned a tap many times a day, thinking nothing of our privilege. Today 30% of Diné homes are still without running water, which has been a major factor in the extreme force COVID-19 exerted in the Navajo Nation.

In 1954, when I started school, Navajo children were being forcibly taken from home and sent to government and mission boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language. But what could they speak? Not English. They didn't know English. There were no carefully sequenced lessons to teach English as a Second Language. It was sink or swim. I already knew how, not only to speak English but to read it. The principal moved me up to second grade on my first day. I had these educational advantages as a day student in that government boarding school because I was White.

On my first day of school, after our lunch of commodity cheese sandwiches and lumpy powdered milk that made me gag, the matron marched us to the dormitory for naps. I knew the matron because her daughters were my playmates. I tried to tell her I didn't take naps anymore, but she acted like she didn't know me and sent me to one of the beds. I thought it meant would have to stay there night after night, which seemed life for always, like all the other children. Never go home again. As soon as the matron left, I rolled off my bed, snuck across the hall, out the heavy metal door, and raced down the hill—home to the mission, sobbing all the way. My mother called the principal and arranged for me to come home for lunch after that. This happened because I was White. The parents of my Navajo classmates couldn't speak to the principal in the "right" language. They didn't have telephones. The government forced them into boarding school compliance.

When I was eight, I was sent to mission boarding school. Unlike the parents of my classmates, my parents weren't forced to send me; it was a choice. Because I was White, I went home every other weekend. The Navajo children went home once during the school year for Christmas vacation. I was terribly homesick. Diné children were deeply homesick, too, with far more reason—silenced because they didn't know the language, punished for speaking theirs, ripped from land and culture, from all that was sacred to them. Everything but home was familiar for me. I could excel in school simply because of language and cultural knowledge. At the end of that year, my parents moved to Gallup. No more boarding school. They had that choice because we were White.

Once at our family-style lunch in the mission dining hall, I asked a Diné high school student to pass me the milk—in Diné bizaad, the Navajo language. I didn't even think about what I was doing. Years later he told me he had thought at the time, "If this little White girl can speak Navajo to me, why shouldn't I speak my own language?" Nothing happened to me because I used Diné bizaad. At the end of the school year, that Navajo student was told he couldn't leave with his father until he paid 85 cents. "Why?" he asked and was told, "A nickel for every time you talked Navajo." He didn't know he had been observed and charged. In 1957, 85 cents was money his family didn't have.

I have benefited in literally countless ways––then and still today, simply because my skin is of the inherited pigmentation we call White. Not Black or Brown. These are only a few examples. If you are what we call White, what about you? 


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved. 


"Racial Injustice Benefited Me" was first published in the Gallup Independent.

This is the final installment of Fissure: A Life Between Cultures that will be published on this website.

On Friday, May 3, I will publish a post about the process of seeking a traditional publisher for a book and explain when the installments that have been published here will be taken offline.

Now is a good time, if you haven't been following to do so. Using the Table of Contents, you will be able to read Fissure straight through, if this is what you've been waiting for.

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From the fan page of the late Diné comedian Vincent Craig, aka Muttonman


Around the time of our staff trip to Window Rock, I discovered the Diné comedian, the late Vincent Craig. Craig had both admirers and critics among Diné, as he liberally used both Dummitawry English and Diné bizaad to get laughs. Because we lived in Cuba, New Mexico my daughter Cheyenne was getting a small taste of what my growing up years had been like. Many of her classmates were Diné, and she enjoyed our Vincent Craig album almost as much as I did. She definitely got his language-based humor.

One evening we had dinner guests—a couple of Bilagáana friends who brought along a Diné friend of theirs. Something in our conversation reminded Cheyenne of one of Craig's sketches. I wasn't aware yet of how controversial his comedy was; to me it was just the humor of home. So when Cheyenne asked if she could tell one of the jokes, I saw no harm in it. She told it well, but it fell worse than flat. The Diné woman's response was, "Oh, yes. The accent." And one of the Bilagáana women, Kim, took me to task for allowing Cheyenne to tell what she regarded as an oppressive joke.

Kim's comment sliced deep. I didn't understand why my pain was so powerful and thought I must be overreacting. I desperately wanted to correct what felt like a huge misunderstanding. In some vague way, Kim's words reminded me of the marble-playing incident. I called her the day after the dinner and tried to explain that Dummitawry English was a language variety I'd spoken as a child and that Cheyenne, too, spoke it at times with her classmates.

"That may be, but I'm sure that when you use it, it's with a sense of one-upmanship," Kim said. With a sinking feeling, I examined myself for racism. For days I grappled with the incident without gaining equanimity.

Years later, the understanding I had sought, and so much more, slid into place with a resounding click. I was having breakfast with my friend Alicia, then a doctoral candidate in cross-cultural communication. In the course of our conversation, I used the word clear.

Alicia stopped me. "There," she said. "What you just said. That's it!"

"What are you talking about?"

"It's the way you said clear."


"Yes, you did it again. You just used an initial voiceless, unaspirated, alveolo-palatal fricative."

I understood her technical terminology from my study of linguistics and my university courses in Diné bizaad. It describes a sound that is made by placing the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth and blowing air past one side of the tongue. It makes the word clear sound something like tlear.


Alicia went on, "I've heard this different thing in your speech ever since I've known you (for nearly twenty years at that point), but I couldn't put my finger on it before. That's what it is." Her voice carried the triumph of finally having figured out something that had eluded her.


"I say it that way all the time? Not just once in a while?"

"All the time."

All the time. It's something that is a permanent part of me. It doesn't come and go, depending on where I am or whom I'm with, the way Dummitawry English does. Tears sprang to my eyes.

"I know what it is," I said. "It's a sound that occurs in a lot of Diné words, like ditłee'. Ditłee' means wet. Do you know what this means, Alicia?" Now I felt excited.

She smiled and nodded as I said, "This is part of who I am, this little linguistic quirk. It's not something I put on and take off when I'm coming and going into Dinétah."

She nodded again. She did know what it meant.

"I've been completely unaware of it."

"There. You just did it again."

I looked my question. Then, excited I said, "The /pl/ blend in completely."

I cradled this word clear and began to notice other words that I pronounce that way, like clean and click. If I work at it, I can choose to pronounce clear the way most native speakers of Standard American English do, but it is not the norm for me. I have to think about it, carefully place my tongue in the right place to form the sound that creates this tiny bit of the English language.

I was happy with my new awareness, but after a while I moved on and I more or less forgot about the importance of clear. Then one morning, I was talking to another high school staff member before class. Jamie, a Diné-Laguna student, stood nearby. Suddenly she interrupted me.

"Hey! You just said tlear!"

"Oh. Yeah, that is how I say it," I said offhandedly, but I also laughed with pleasure—at myself and at Jamie's recognition of me. I explained how Alicia had told me about my idiosyncrasy. Then I said, "So you heard it, huh?" I didn't try to keep the gratification out of my voice.

What Ilene and Lily knew, what Jamie heard, what Alicia heard, what they told me, helped me, in the end, to know something of who I am. I am not Diné—that much is obvious in so many ways. Nor am I mainstream American, whatever that is. I am someone else, someone In Between, having an identity of my own. When a child is surrounded by a culture other than the one she was born into, a long fall may be set in motion, pulling her into a cleft that lies deep between two ways of being in the world. I have discovered that if one is able to climb out of that crevice, one may lay oneself across cultural gaps—a bridge among, not only those original cultures, but among other cultures and other peoples, as well.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.


This is the final installment of "The Importance of Clear."

The last posting here from Fissure: A Life Between Cutltures, will be on Monday, 4/29/24.

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Even as I entered more deeply into knowledge of the Diné worldview, even as I hoped our shared work in the bilingual education movement would repair some of the damage that had been done for well over a century, I began to sense that I would need to go even farther away from home—the home that no longer existed––in order to find home within myself. One evening, after a long day of training kindergarten teachers to use our bilingual-bicultural kit, Lily Roanhorse and I sipped cold drinks in the lounge of the Farmington Holiday Inn. Lily got to talking about what it was like to be college-educated Diné, how it put her and others into an in-between place, always trying to figure out where they belonged. As we talked, I said something about how, if I was in a group with Diné, I often hid what I knew of the language and ways. "I don't want to overstep or act like I think I know more than I do." The underlying message was, "I don't want to be guilty of appropriating something that doesn't belong to me."

I am still moved by the gift of grace that Lily extended to me in that moment. "You have an identity crisis just like we do," she said. "We don't know who we are, and neither do you."

I was so grateful to be seen by her, even though I knew it wasn't the same. I might question where I fit in, just as Lily did, but I was still White. I could avail myself anytime of all the privileges that came with my skin.

I left Diné education because I believed that Diné children deserved Diné teachers and Diné leaders. I felt this was the right order of things, even when another of my teammates in the publishing house, Ilene, told me I could contribute something unique to the work we were doing. "You know the culture from inside and outside," she said. "It means you have a different perspective. We need different perspectives."

Ilene and I shared an office, but we'd known each other since childhood. We had eaten fry bread together in her mother's hogan, and we had played house, pretending to be members of a tribe neither of us belonged to. Later, we graduated in the same class from the mission school and attended some of the same courses at the university.

Despite what Lily and Ilene said and how much I respected them, despite I how grateful I was for what they saw in me, I had to leave. In retrospect, I see that leaving had as much to do with my need to find out who I really was as it did with my vision of Diné educators for Diné students. Both women had offered me a place, a niche, but at the time, I couldn't embody the vision; I couldn't claim it.

In my first move away from things Diné, I trained to be a clinical counselor. Then I left the high desert altogether and traveled and lived in far-flung places—first San Francisco, then Copenhagen, southern Sweden, a farm near the northernmost tip of New Zealand, then back closer to home, just south of Santa Cruz, California. And at last I found my way back to a spot on the eastern edge of Diné Country. I pieced together several different jobs as a counselor in the tiny rural community of Cuba, New Mexico.

Torreon is a Diné community close to Cuba, and I found work there in the BIA school and in the community at large. The present school is a modern cinderblock building, but the old school was still standing, and it housed Headstart and parent programs. Depression era work projects had built schools all over Dinétah, using native stone and pine logs. The schools looked pretty much alike, so when I entered the one at Torreon, I felt I as if I were back in my school at Teec Nos Pos. I experienced a sense of familiarity, of homecoming, and also some of the anxiety I had felt in my first school.

The school at Torreon smelled the same as my old one—like red sawdust sweeping compound, linoleum, Vaseline, and government commodity cheese. I guess I could say it was the smells that brought out the Dummitawry English in me. But really, it was being with people. By then, I had experienced myself in so many different contexts that I had more of a sense who I was. I was more solidly me. But I couldn't help noticing that when I crossed the line into Dinétah, singing welled up inside me. I smiled to myself when I had to stop for a herd of sheep to cross the road. I drank in the mesas and juniper and sage. And I slipped without noticing it back into that different way of speaking. My accent wasn't as strong as when I'd earned Katie Van Boven's scorn, but it was there. My way of joking changed, too, when I hit the Nation. I didn't consciously warn myself to guard the newfound sense of who I was. Yet, unconsciously I took care, always staying aware that I wasn't Diné, old fantasies and wishes to the contrary. I was me—a sort of in-between person, perhaps, but still me.

Sometimes when I was back in the Nation, I noticed that I was an invisible me, and much of that was my own doing. At one point, I contracted to train Diné counselors in a substance abuse program near Cuba. During that time, our staff traveled once on business to the Navajo Nation capital in Window Rock. At lunch, our program director ordered a meal of corn, beans and squash. Jean said, in Diné bizaad, that long ago her people had eaten a vegetarian diet like the dish she was eating.

I was surprised, because roast mutton, mutton stew, and fry bread are mainstays of today's traditional menu, and the rest of us were tucking into our mutton stew with gusto. I said, "T'áásh aaníí?"

Jean turned to me. Carefully, slowly, she explained what she had just said about the vegetarian diet, but she said it in English.

In response, I mirrored her, repeating my words, only in English this time—a polite, "Really?" I said it as if I hadn't understood what she'd said in Diné bizaad.

Even though Jean knew that I had grown up in the Navajo Nation and that I understood and spoke some Diné bizaad, when I said, "T'áásh aaníí?" she had relied on the visual cue of my whiteness. She literally did not hear that I had responded in Navajo to her Navajo. Her overly careful English interpretation of her own words seemed to be an unconscious recognition that something confusing had just happened linguistically, but she apparently had no cognitive or sensory reference points for the event. And I was not about to make any kind of statement about it. I just went with her flow, making myself—my intercultural self—invisible. Jean went on to talk about how, as a child, she'd picked and eaten wild carrots and wild onions. I had done the same thing up on the mountain at Teec Nos Pos. I kept that information to myself too.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To be continued on Friday, 4/26/24

Friday's installment will complete "The Importance of Clear."

On Monday, 4/29/24 the first essay of Part IV, Passage, will post. "Racial Injustice Benefited Me" is a flash essay, and although there are three more essays in the collection, the final three will not be posted on my website, as I am seeking a publisher for the collection.


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The Native publishing house's first book


In 1957, when I was eight, my parents sent me to mission boarding school, 135 miles from home. It was the first time I had classmates who were White. One day, during recess, we were out on the playground by the dorms. It was spring, and we were playing marbles. It was my turn to shoot, and I couldn't find my red cat eye shooter. I called out in my best Dummitawry English "Hey, you kits, ditchyou saw my rat marvel?"

Katie Van Boven, a White girl who lived at the mission with her parents and had never lived in the Nation, hooted. "Hey, what did you just say?" Her laughter had a mean edge. "Who do you think you are? You think you're a Navajo? You're not Navajo. You're White. You know that?"

I looked around at my friends, who were Diné. They kept their eyes on the ground, studying the marbles in the circle. I felt my face flush, and clenched my hands. I stopped looking for my shooter and jumped up from the marble circle. I brushed the dirt and pebbles from my knees and ran to the monkey bars. I traveled across and back, across and back, three-at-a-time. I swallowed hard against the thick saltiness in my throat.

After that day, I took care to notice who was around when I spoke and which form of English I used. Sometimes I slipped into Dummitawry English without realizing it, but never again so heavily around the other White kids. I thought of the Diné kids as my real friends. At the same time, I began to admit to myself that I wasn't one of them.

I started to want to belong to the secretive, tightly woven group of White missionaries' kids, the ones who had never lived in the Nation but always on the main mission campus, where the school was. I felt ashamed for wanting it. I asked myself why I should wish to belong to a group that excluded me and was mean to me. I excused my longing by telling myself that my Native friends all went home from boarding school in the summer, and who was left for me if I wasn't part of the White group? But I never broke into that knot of whiteness.

I felt an in-between ache that wouldn't go away. Some part of me thought that because I looked like those White kids, I must be part of them. At the same time, my heart held an opposite, even more impossible longing—to be Diné. As time went on, I created fantasies in which I had been born mixed—Diné and White. I cradled those stories to myself and dwelled on them over and over.

After high school, I left for our church college in Michigan. We had visited relatives there some summers, but that was different from living and going to school there. I was rammed into culture shock in that green-treed, gray-skied, Dutch-American world. I never fit in, and after two years, I transferred to the University of New Mexico. At UNM the Diné language was offered as a university subject, and in those classes, a systematic approach gave me an appreciation for the tremendous intricacies of the language. My natural next step was to study linguistics and the field of bilingual education, which took me onto a career path that fit with my early life.

Because of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, Navajo Nation schools had started to teach children to read and write and do science, math, and social studies in Diné bizaad. To do this, teachers needed vocabulary that hadn't previously existed in Diné bizaad. New colors joined the Diné spectrum. Teachers needed to know what to call a parallelogram. As a graduate student, I was hired to travel from one bilingual teacher training program in Dinétah to another, recording the terminology teachers were trying out, working to help standardize nomenclature among the schools. Until then, no one had talked about the color purple in the Diné language; the new word became tsídídééh, the name for the wild purple four o'clock flower. "Triangle" became táá'go deez'á, meaning "three-pointed."

Bilingual education grew into a movement, and the government funded bilingual publishing houses around the country. Most were for Spanish programs; the only Native one was located in Albuquerque. People on staff were mostly Indigenous—artists, writers, educators, linguists, and the Diné half of the creators of the Navajo-English Dictionary then in use. These were highly skilled, creative and innovative people, and I felt lucky to be one of the few White teammates. Our director, a visual artist, poet, and educator from Shiprock, had a master's degree in education from Harvard and was a consummate networker and visionary. She encouraged us to think outside the box. Gone were the rough illustrations on mimeographed paper from which I'd learned to read Diné bizaad. Our center produced four-color, glossy books and posters—materials that legitimized reading and academic learning in the Diné language and made it attractive besides.

Our biggest project was the creation of a full-day curriculum that integrated Diné tradition, language, and learning modalities as vehicles for teaching customary school subjects. The goal was to create Diné graduates who were fully bilingual and bicultural, able to function in many worlds with ease, and accomplished in the unique gifts of their culture.

Before we wrote, we spent days listening to a hataałi—what Bilagáanas call a medicine man and literally translates as singer—teach us about the Diné cosmos, the astonishingly intricate web that connects all of life. This was when I learned the word k'é and realized that I had practiced k'é in a limited way for a long time. I knew now that when old Grandma Begay rocked me to and fro, calling me shitsóí, shitsóí—my granddaughter, my granddaughter—we had been acknowledging k'e together. But now I also saw that there was so much more to k'e than our human connectedness. The constellations were related to cycles of life, corn pollen and sun, thoughts and the Earth. Every. Thing. Related. The complexity of it made me gasp. The hataałi just smiled and nodded at my wonderment. It also became painfully clear to me that this way of seeing the universe, though I really had so little comprehension of it, was what my parents—missionaries—and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had sought to destroy.

From our days of listening to the elder—the singer—a rough outline of the future curriculum evolved. Later, it fell to me to refine, expand and apply the outline to a school setting, then work with Diné teachers to create sequenced lessons. After that, our writing staff refined the lessons further, created accompanying stories, and worked with our art and design department to create visuals for completed curriculum and materials kits.

Our collective zeal was not unlike the passion of my parents and their fellow missionaries. We were living in high times, standing at the forefront of a movement that we thought could turn the tide of cultural losses—losses that were becoming more and more rapid and far-reaching. I realized, dimly at first, that I was, on some level, trying to repair the damage I felt my parents had inflicted. And I began to be aware of wanting to atone for being White.

At the same time, I longed for the place that means home to me—Teec Nos Pos. I remembered the beating drums and chanting voices, starting low and slow, growing high and passionate on the hill above the mission—my summer lullabies. In addition to the confusion of being White Not Diné, I knew I could not go home again to Teec Nos Pos or any part of the Navajo Nation. Not to live. What had once been home was now Home Not Home.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.


To be continued on Monday, 4/22/24.

If you are just joining this journey, you can use the Table of Contents to guide you to the beginning of the book.

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