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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


A BIA school like the one I attended

This entry first appeared in The Gallup Independent on June 13, 2020. Published here with permission with minor changes.


I grew up in the Navajo Nation and in Gallup. My parents were white missionaries. For several days now, we have been hearing and seeing rightful outrage about the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman. We are being reminded about many others whose lives have been 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 red lives are. The signs should say, "Black and Red Lives Matter," because in the US, police kill Native people at a greater 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 at Teec Nos Pos, Navajo 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 Navajo homes are still without running water, which is a major factor in the extreme force of COVID-19 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 in that school because I was white.


On my first day of school, after our lunch of government 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 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. Navajo 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 lunch I asked a Navajo high school student to pass me the milk—in Diné, the Navajo language. I didn't even think about what I was doing. Years later he told me he had thought, "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. 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 white. Not black or red. These are only a few examples. If you are white, please consider how you have benefited because of the color of your skin. Consider what you can do to dismantle this system of racial injustice.

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