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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Rehoboth Mission Hospital where the doctor gave his advice

I want to introduce you to my friend Alice. Alice Whitegoat. That's not her real name because she asked me not to use her real one in these stories. "Name me Alice," she said. "After Alice Walker." I wanted to give her a surname, too. I've known people with the last name Blackgoat or Many Goats, but no one called Whitegoat, which doesn't mean there aren't any. I decided to name my friend Alice Whitegoat to hold onto Alice Walker's initials.
Alice is one of my close friends. She is a wise woman, a painter, a poet, a storyteller, a joker, an activist, an educator, and a consummate networker. She knows famous people—indigenous and not—like Francis Ford Coppola and the late Diné artist and writer Carl Gorman and his even more famous son, the late RC Gorman. She brings a contemporary woman's sensibilities to traditional images in her visual and written art.
Alice is also a survivor of boarding schools—both personally and generationally. In fact, she and her mother attended the same mission school that I did, but Alice is ten years older than I am, and though she might have been a student at the high school when I arrived in fourth grade, I didn't meet her then. Nevertheless, the Rehoboth Mission experience is something we talk about sometimes, often with dark humor.
Alice also exemplifies heritage language reclamation. When she was three, her parents brought her to the hospital at the same mission where she would eventually go to school. They were concerned because she still wasn't talking. This can happen for lots of reasons, including sometimes when a child is acquiring language for the first time while being exposed to more than one language. That's a perfect setting for them to become bilingual, even though the process may be slower than usual. But the doctor who saw Alice, told her parents to use one language at home. It didn't matter which one. They chose English, thinking it would ultimately make Alice's life easier.
And it did. In some ways. Her native brilliance and her facility with English meant that she gobbled up books when she worked as the student librarian at Rehoboth. She eventually got a master's degree from the Harvard School of Education. She was awarded prestigious fellowships and directed several indigenous programs that made a difference in the Navajo Nation. That's how I got to know her. She was my boss in a Native education publishing house. And what a time that was; we were at the forefront of an exciting bilingual education movement. I told Alice once that I feel like the publishing house is where I grew up. She said she feels that too, which surprised me.
After working together, we lost touch for a good many years, as I sought to find and establish an identity apart from my roots within the Nation, which I've begun to realize may not be possible. We reconnected at a reunion of the publishing house staff. We've grown closer as friends over the years, visiting in one another's homes, working on projects together, sharing our writing now and then, taking short trips to visit mutual friends, attending her art shows, me having a reading in her home, and phone calls full of laughter.
Alice Whitegoat will show up now and then in these posts, so I wanted to introduce her early on. The advice from that missionary doctor made her life easier in one world but more difficult and painful in another. When we worked together back in the 1970s, I saw how painful it was for this ebullient, creative, cutting-edge thinker not to own her own language. She had a high profile in both worlds, but there was always this loss, which she says affected her credibility in the world that was most important to her.
Then a while back, I witnessed something that seemed almost miraculous to me. Alice and I had met up with an elderly cousin of hers, who spoke English but not so fluently or easily. I heard Alice speak Diné with her, more Diné than I'd ever heard from Alice. Some of the time it clearly wasn't necessary for her cousin's comprehension, but it was essential for something else. Something we might call meta-communication. Not words or even meaning, but feeling. Something bigger and deeper. Alice had reclaimed her lost language. Later she told me the story of how that began, which isn't my story to tell.
In a sort of aside, or perhaps it's a central question, I wonder how the two worlds
Alice had to negotiate––the two worlds even I have had to negotiate––how it may be possible to join them while retaining their distinctiveness.



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