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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures




Diné people might not have liked my mother, but quite a few came to trust her as a nurse, and when she was called on in that capacity, she was always ready to serve. When she was offered Navajo Country as a temporary substitute for Nigeria, my mother agreed and took her first airplane ride to the Rehoboth Mission Hospital, five miles east of Gallup. It was 1946, and she met my father at the mission. He arrived after her by a few months to work as the cook for the boarding school and hospital, having learned institutional cooking in the army during the war. They married in 1947 and drove to Michigan so he could attend Bible School and become a Bible-preaching missionary instead of a cooking one. I think they had always hoped to return to Dinétah. By the time the mission board sent them in 1952, they had three children, of whom I was the eldest, nearly four years old.

Over the years, I saw things my mother did for which Diné people could have loved her. And maybe they did sometimes. One Sunday, after the morning church service, someone came to the interpreter who worked with my father and told him a baby had been born the night before and was very sick. Could my mother come to the family hogan to see him? We drove over, and my mother stooped to enter the traditional earthen home. She was in there only a few minutes when she came back out, walking swiftly and carrying a small bundle wrapped in a blanket.

My father turned the car around, and we headed for Shiprock, where there was an Indian Health Service hospital. From the back seat I watched my mother hold the tiny, naked, wrinkled baby upside down by his ankles. His skin, which should have been a rich brown, was blue-gray. Periodically my mother thumped his back, and she kept wiping him down with a wet cloth.

"Why are you holding him that way?" I asked.

"He's barely breathing because there's mucus in his air passages. If I had a bulb syringe, I could suck some of it out. Holding him upside down helps drain the fluid, so he can breathe easier. He has a high fever. That's why I'm using this wet cloth. I'm trying to bring the fever down"
The car bumped over the dusty, rock-strewn road. My father didn't watch out for rocks the way he usually did. We jerked over them, going faster than we ever had.

At the hospital, my mother rushed in with the baby. Hardly any time passed before she came back without him. "They said his temperature went all the way up to the end of the thermometer. Probably past it," she said. She sounded so serious, so worried. "They don't know if he's going to make it."

The boy did live and got named Clifford. The doctors said my mother had saved his life. Clifford grew brown and chubby, and whenever we saw him, his family called him my mother's baby. Surely that was a kind of love.

Still, it's not difficult for me to see why my mother was not liked in the same way my dad was. Her own mother was a brusque, direct woman, quick to judge, and she included my mother in her pronouncements. There never seemed to be room for doubt about what Grandma thought of people and their foibles. Once in my mother's kitchen, I was a silent witness to one of her cruel comments. By that time my mother had given birth to nine children (her mother had had only three), and my mom said something about the joys and maybe even the religious obligation to bring children into the world. Grandma said, without pause, "Yes, but a woman is not a cow, for instance." I almost laughed, but I saw my mother's face and bit my lips.

Despite, or more likely because of, having absorbed many more belittlements and perhaps worse, my mother became a judgmental person herself. If she didn't come right out and say what she was thinking, and she usually did, at least at home, her attitudes were communicated by her withholding visage.


There was a bit more to the rattlesnake story. Before my mother went for the shovel, she noticed that there was a Navajo Police vehicle parked up the hill at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. She went back to the house and called the school, which, since it was a boarding school, was staffed on Sundays. She asked to speak to the officer. She wanted him to kill the snake for her. When she told us the story at dinner, she said, "He hemmed and hawed, said maybe, and I knew he wasn't going to do it. What a chicken."

My father said, "But you know Navajo people aren't supposed to have anything to do with snakes."

"Yes, but he's a policeman," she said. "Why be a policeman if you're afraid of a snake? If you can't help people who need help? Those Navajo Police are useless."

My mother raised us the way she was raised––not to question authority; it didn't even occur to me to have an opinion about what my mother had just said. Though I had no opinion then, clearly my mother's blatant othering, made an impression, as I stored this and similar incidents. They would lie at the root of my radically opposing views later on.


Old Lady Appel was thin and bent and moved swiftly down the dusty road in front of the mission whenever she came by. No one seemed to know where her name came from, though her face did have as many wrinkles as the skin of an apple ready for the compost. Her long skirts swished around her high-top work boots, and her cane barely touched the ground. "What does she carry that cane for?" my mother complained. "Obviously she doesn't need it, walking at that clip. She's practically running."

When Old Lady Appel turned off the road and onto the mission compound, my mother groaned. "Why does she always have to come here when we're eating? And when you're home for once?" That was addressed to my father, who was rarely home at lunchtime.

Sometimes it was a mystery why Old Lady Appel came at all, and contrary to my mother's complaint, it wasn't always at lunch. I thought she was the oldest person I knew, and I can still see her sitting on the kitchen floor, even though she'd been offered a chair, while my mother, who probably spent more time in the kitchen than in any other room, worked at the sink. Neither spoke each other's language, though I could sometimes hear the old woman rattling on at my mother in Diné bizaad. It was almost as if she thought my mother would grasp what she was saying if she just kept on talking long enough.

When I look back, I think Old Lady Appel's visits might even have been a form of hospitality. Possibly she thought my mother must be lonely––a Bilagáana woman in Dinétah without her extended family nearby. Or maybe the old lady was just out walking and wanted the cup of water she knew my mother would offer.

I try to understand my mother's antipathy, which descended to its nadir when it came to Old Lady Appel, but was often present when other Diné people showed up unannounced. Although she was a guest in their land, my mother's attitude reflected the US government's post-colonial assimilation policies of the 50s. I often heard her refer to "those people," resentment in her voice, for many reasons, one of them because "they" had not adopted the White habit of arranging a visit ahead of time. It was an empty, ridiculous wish, as only the trading post, the school, and the mission had telephones, which made pre-arranged visits an impossibility. Never mind that scheduled visits weren't part of the Diné hospitality culture.

Aside from her insensitivity to the host culture at best and her racism at worst, I know my mother lived under constant stress. While we lived at Teec Nos Pos, her passel of children doubled to six; in the summer we had electricity only two hours a day in the evenings; her hands were always red and cracked from laundering clothes on a washboard and in a wringer washer––including piles of cloth diapers––and from hanging them outdoors to dry in all weathers; she accompanied church services (sometimes three on a Sunday) on the piano, pump organ, or accordion. But chief among her grievances, was the fact that my father was absent far more than she thought necessary.

He was gone to passionately spread the gospel. And to help people––probably one explanation for the first half of Janice Becenti's pronouncement: " You know, the Navajo people really like your dad."

One day my mother's nemesis did come by when we were eating lunch, on a day when my father happened to be home. We saw her scuttling along the road, turning in at the mission. My mother had things to say from the moment she saw the woman. When Old Lady Appel knocked at the back door––the only door we used––my father went to answer. A few minutes later, he came back. "I need to get John's help," he said. "She keeps mentioning łíí', her horse. She's making the motions of throwing up and holding her nose, but I can't put together what she's talking about."

The interpreter's house was a few hundred yards from ours, and my father went to get Mr. Tsosie, who was doubtless also eating lunch. Together they talked with Old Lady Appel. Then Dad came back and said he had to go out to her place. "Her horse died a few days ago, and the smell is so bad, it's making her sick. She hasn't eaten for three days."

He knew my mother would object, and she did. "Can't you at least finish your lunch first? That horse isn't going anywhere." But he put on his fedora, which I suppose looked odd with his short-sleeved, white nylon shirt and khaki pants with the front pleats. He left in the mission pickup with Mr. Tsosie and Old Lady Appel.

Over dinner that night he told us the story. "She was right, you know. The smell was so terrible, John and I had a hard time not vomiting. We threw a couple old tires on top of the horse, and some gas, and started the pile on fire. The burning rubber smelled terrible, too, but it got rid of the decaying horse smell. If we had just burned the horse, the stink would've hung around."

"Wasn't there anyone else around there who could help her?"

"She asked us," Dad said.

"Well, I hope she was thankful."

"She didn't say anything about that." He grinned.


"Of course not."



© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To be continued on Friday, 3/1/24

If you are just joining this serialization of Fissure, you can find your way to the beginning by going to the Table of Contents

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Janice Becenti must have been waiting for me to come out of my stall in the girls' dorm bathroom at the Rehoboth Mission School because she came out of hers right after me. It was morning recess, and we were the only two in there. Janice was a big girl, bigger than me anyhow, and Diné to my Bilagáana. She was in sixth grade, I was in fifth, and we shared a classroom. Her father was a missionary near Crownpoint, and mine was the missionary at Tohlakai at the time. Janice had never paid much attention to me, but I couldn't help feeling a little bit scared of her. She looked me in the eye that day and, seemingly out of nowhere, said, "You know, the Navajo people really like your dad, but they don't like your mother very much." With that she flounced into the room with the long porcelain trough. I watched our soapy water mix and run down the rust-red stripe toward the drain. The water at the mission tasted of salt and iron.

I didn't say anything to Janice to defend my mother, even though she was still the most important person in my life then. She was the person I talked with more than anyone else. I didn't say anything to Janice, not because I wasn't loyal to my mother. I was. It was because I was pretty sure I understood what Janice meant. I even thought she was probably right, and in that moment, I felt sad about my mother. I could have wondered where Janice had gotten this information, but I didn't.



When my mother died four days before her hundredth birthday, our family waited a few months to hold her memorial because of the pandemic. That months-long wait could explain why so few Diné people joined us in celebration of her life. A week or so after we buried her ashes, I had a long conversation with my cousin Cor. She asked me, "How come there were hardly any Navajos at the memorial? I mean, it was in the same church as your dad's funeral, and probably more than half the people at his were Navajo. I could count Navajos on one hand at your mom's."


"You're right," I said. "My dad's funeral was a great reunion with people I hadn't seen for years. After I talked with everyone there, the only food left at the reception was a slice of banana bread. Which I hate." I laughed. And then I suggested that the long wait between Mom's death and the memorial might have had something to do with how few Diné people joined us. "But there's more, I think."

There was a lot more.

I had felt agitated in the days after the memorial, and Cor's question was what I needed to talk about.  People expect you to say good things about the dead at a funeral. If I'm asked to speak, I try to say interesting things, things that will give people a glimpse of sides they may not have known about the person. We had divided my mother's eulogy into three parts because one hundred years is a lot of time to cover. I didn't say anything bad about my mother, but I was careful not to heap praise on her either. There were people who did that. One of my brothers spoke several times about how hospitable my mother had been to Diné people. To my ears what he said amounted to glorification. The implication was that there was something magnanimous about her, and there was an us-them quality to the words that made my skin crawl.

Within a couple of days of the funeral, some truth-telling took place on social media. My nephew Noah posted a nuanced entry about my parents' missionary life. He wrote about how their good intentions and perhaps naïveté had been destructive to a Diné way of life and about how that had been omitted from the memorial speeches. I was grateful to Noah. What he did took integrity and courage. He described my parents' role within the post-colonial system—the way churches and government worked together hand-in-glove to change the Indigenous way of life, to effect assimilation.

But he necessarily left out the specifics that might answer Cor's question about my mother. Because he was of the next generation, he didn't know things I knew, things even my younger siblings don't know. To Noah my mother had been the grandma who looked after him and his brother and sister after school, supplied them with cookies, and put bandaids on their owies.

I hadn't thought about that moment in the girls room with Janice Becenti for years. Noah's post and Cor's question put me back there, and Janice became part of the story I told to Cor.



My mother had decided when she was eight years old that she wanted to be a medical missionary, and after high school she trained to be a registered nurse. After nursing school, she applied to our church's mission board to go to China, but the revolution was in progress there, and China was evicting missionaries, not taking in new ones. Her next choice was Nigeria, but there was going to be a delay in sending her, and the board asked if, while she waited, she'd like to go to the mission hospital at Rehoboth, New Mexico, which served the Navajo Nation.

I've never thought of my mother as especially adventuresome, but being a missionary in a foreign country could be a path to the exotic for a single young woman of my mother's generation and conservative religious background. She was reared with an intense obligation to convert people to Christianity. She embraced the assumption that non-White people in other countries––people of other cultures, anyone seen as Other––needed salvation. Christian duty, not the allure of the unusual, was probably the main motivation for her life choice.

Missionary stories were a staple in my childhood reading. There were tales of single missionary women riding bicycles through the perilous savannah of East Africa. They learned what to me were exotic languages and lived in grass huts shared with snakes and rats. There were women who decided to carry on alone when their missionary husbands were murdered by people who didn't want what they had to offer. Clearly many women of the past and of my mother's own generation had pursued more than duty; they were also drawn to the romance of the unknown when they set out as missionaries.

The appeal of risk and adventure seems more theoretical when it comes to my mother, since she never appeared to be particularly curious about Diné ways. She accepted what other Bilagáana missionaries told her. In general, she was a follower of rules. What she thought was most often something she had received from others. It wasn't that my mother wasn't intelligent, but she wasn't a critical thinker. She had grown up with an overly developed acceptance of authority.

Even if it was duty, not risk or adventure, that attracted my mother to the missionary life, she was quite capable of being intrepid in the face of danger. One Sunday, when she had stayed home in Teec Nos Pos with the little ones, my dad and us older children went off to church services in Beclabito, seven miles away over a dirt road. My mother had put the children down for a nap, then walked over to the chapel to make things ready for the afternoon church service there. Someone had left a bunch of toys on the wooden steps leading to the front door. She bent to pick them up and came face to face with a coiled rattlesnake. For some reason the snake had not sounded its warning. My mother backed off, hands no doubt trembling, and went back to the house for a shovel. She hurried back to the chapel, and found that the rattler had not moved. She lofted the shovel and decapitated the snake, wiped her sweaty palms onto her apron, then went about the rest of her morning.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.


To be continued on Monday, 2/26/24

If you are just joining this serialization, you can catch up by referring to the Table of Contents

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In April of 2008, my mother called early in the morning before I could leave for work. "Your daddy's gone to Glory," she said. She had never before called him your daddy. Not to me. It felt odd. Later I remembered that she and her sisters never stopped calling my grandfather Daddy. But I had stopped calling my father Daddy years earlier. People do and say things they otherwise wouldn't when someone has just died. It was like my mother to say he'd "gone to Glory," in a rare moment of allowing herself to be dramatic.

I called in to work after talking with my mother and drove to Gallup, 136 miles from where I lived. I needed to see my father before the morticians got their hands on him. I went straight to the mortuary, and they told me they wouldn't let me see him, that I wouldn't want to, until they fixed him up. I went outside, sat on a bench in the sun and cried. Not from grief, probably not even so much because I needed that time with him, but from a feeling of powerlessness. The funeral director saw me and had a change of heart. She took me to a small room where my father lay on a gurney, zipped up to his hands and chest in a plastic, navy blue body bag. His mouth gaped, I suppose in his last gasp for air, but his eyes were closed.


I touched my father's bony hands. They were cold. I sat by his side and told him things I hadn't been able to tell him when his mind had left him or before that when he was so angry with me for not following his path. I told him, "Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for teaching me that there is a life of the spirit. Thank you for teaching me to read the Diné language when I was starting to read English. Thank you for telling me about Diné life as you believed it was. I'm sorry we couldn't talk better with each other at the end. I love you, Dad." I cried a little but not a lot, and then I left and went to see my mother.

She was baffled when I told her I'd been to see my dad and how difficult it had been just to be allowed to see him. "Why did you think you needed to see him that way anyway? And why did you need to go by yourself?" I thought if I had to explain it, she probably wouldn't understand, so I let her questions lie between us.

Three days later, we all went to the funeral home and had family time with my dad in the pine coffin my brothers had built. The mortician had sewn Dad's lips shut. He couldn't yell at me anymore to tell me that on Judgment Day I would pray for the rocks and the mountains to fall on me. He didn't look like himself, either, with his lips that way.

That evening, in my mother's living room we gathered—children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews—and told stories about my dad. We talked about how he always pulled a comb out of his back pocket to slick back his hair when he was walking from the car to a store or church; how he would spin a car full of us kids on ice; how he loved to take a handful of sage leaves, rub them and hold them out to us and say, "Smell!" We laughed and ate sweets and talked about the sweetness of the man and the traits we had inherited from him.

Many Diné came to my father's funeral. John Tsosie, who comforted me at Trudy's funeral, drove five hours each way to be present. Christian converts came to Gallup from as far away as Teec Nos Pos and Albuquerque. In the graveyard a hole had been dug in what is known as Missionary Row. Old missionaries, dating back to a death date of 1936, lie next to each other. My brothers and I lowered the coffin on ropes. One of my brothers pointed out that I seemed to be in a rush because my end was dropping too fast. Maybe I just wasn't as strong as them. And maybe I was in a rush.

Sharla, the daughter of one of the converts from Teec Nos Pos was someone I knew pretty well, a PhD psychologist. Several shovels stood in the pile of earth beside the grave, and we were told that anyone could scoop in some dirt. Sharla grabbed a spade before anyone else and energetically tossed in several shovelfuls. She is generally a vigorous woman, but one of my brothers and I both noticed that she seemed eager. We wondered if she were getting some kind of closure. We didn't think she'd known Dad that well. Maybe it was closure with all the Bilagáana missionaries she'd known.

It is a cliché that your life changes in unforeseen ways when a parent dies because a generation no longer stands between you and death as a sort of buffer. I didn't believe my dad's death would affect me that way, but for a long time after that, hardly a day went by that I didn't think about my own mortality. For one thing, I am closer now to my death than to my birth. I think to myself, "I'm going to die someday. How can that be? How will it happen? When? Fast or slow? What will the days before it be like?"

Fear of the dead, which later became fear of dying, rarely accompanies my thoughts. It does visit now and then, though only briefly. Most of the time I am struck with a sense of wonder, of incomprehension. I cannot imagine a world where I am not. This is not because I think I am indispensable but because this is the only place I have known myself to be. Even the certainty of death is incomprehensible. It will happen.


Death has changed, or I have changed in relationship to it. At times I wonder how my thoughts about death may morph yet again, whether I might be granted some understanding of it before it happens to this body I call me. Mostly I am simply in awe of the mystery of it, which I suppose is what that fear disguised all along.


©Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


This is the final installment of "Some Things Were True."

Installment 1 of Chapter IV of Fissure, "In the Girls Room" will post on Friday, 2/23/24

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Rehoboth Mission Hospital as it looked when I worked there



I'm not sure why the idea of the dead coming back to life is so frightening. In our imaginations, they don't come back truly alive but as the living dead, zombies. The notion defies a most basic natural law.

In my late teens and early twenties I worked in the mission hospital as a nursing assistant. I often worked nights, and it was my task at the beginning of each shift to make rounds of the thirty-bed hospital to see if the patients were sleeping or if they needed anything. That's how I happened to find old Mr. Arviso after he died.

I walked into the men's ward, which had six beds, and in the bed farthest from the door, I noticed that this big, barrel-chested man had removed his hospital gown. Then I saw that his chest wasn't rising and falling. My heart squeezed and rose to my throat, and I watched for a moment longer to make sure he wasn't breathing. I didn't check his pulse but left quickly to find the registered nurse.

Ruth came back with me and after checking his pulse, confirmed my observation. We pulled the curtain around his bed and brought in a gurney. I asked Ruth, "Do I have to touch him?"

"No," she said. "We can use his sheet to lift him onto the stretcher."

The morgue, like all hospital morgues, lay in the basement. But the mission hospital had no elevators, and we had to roll the gurney down a gravelly incline, scored by sizeable ruts from recent rains. There were no outside lights, and it was a moonless night. Although we had strapped the body to the stretcher, gravity and the man's weight caused it to tilt to the side, threatening to tip the gurney off its wheels. Ruth and I giggled, and soon my laughter bordered on hysteria. It was like my father's nervous laughter when he couldn't get that corpse to fit into the box.

Once we'd gotten the body into the morgue, we went about our routines. Ruth went into the newborn nursery to feed babies. I went to the children's ward to make prescribed formulas. Then I powdered rubber gloves and folded them into cloth wrappers so they could be put into the autoclave, sterilized and reused. All night my skin tingled with heightened awareness, and every time I looked in on a patient, it was with the expectation that they might have died since the last time I checked.

Around three o'clock Ruth and I sat down to eat in the windowed corner of the kitchen. Night blackness pressed on the panes. Ruth faced the hallway, and I gazed at the windows. Suddenly she gasped. I jerked, and panic flooded my body.

"What?" I heard the alarm in my voice. I was afraid to turn toward the hallway.

"I forgot to put the nursery bottles into the sterilizer."

I stared at her as my panic decelerated. "That's it?" I said. "I thought Mr. Arviso came back to life and was walking down the hall." We both laughed, but I decided I'd had enough to eat.

Every death I witnessed in the hospital became a little easier, and it wasn't long before I was able to bathe a body, still lying in its bed, to do the work my mother and father used to do when someone died. I still felt unusually alert, though, always aware of the mystery I attended. I felt that anything could happen, that I understood so little about this crossing over. When a body, sometimes hours after death, exhaled for the last time, I startled. It was as if the flesh had heaved a great sigh. My old fear returned momentarily—fear of the dead coming back.


It was my father who taught me to speak my first Diné words. He taught me how to read in the Diné language at the same time I was learning to read English. This was at a time when a minuscule number of people, Diné or Bilagáana, knew how to read in Navajo. From my father I also learned something of Diné beliefs. Many of them were ones he'd learned from other White men. For a long time I believed that what he told me was the way it was.

When I began having adult relationships with adult Diné, I started to see traditional beliefs in a different light. Often I was astounded. At one point I taught an introductory psychology class for Diné College. Except for a Lakota man, all of my students were Diné. In addition to a standard general psychology text, each week I assigned a chapter from Carl Hammerschlag's The Dancing Healers. Carl had both learned from and helped Native patients, healers, and leaders in his practice of psychiatry with the Indian Health Service. I used his book because I wanted to affirm the idea that a Eurocentric approach to psychology is not the only way to look at the human mind. Through story and reflection, Carl offered a unique perspective. I also encouraged my students to bring in speakers from the community to broaden viewpoints about the human condition.

I assigned one chapter from The Dancing Healers for its wonderful description of neurosis. The words came from a Mojave Indian father, speaking to his daughter about some problems she was having in college. He compared the problems to a hardening Jell-O mold, saying "You [cannot] ignore the forces of darkness, or they [will] harden you." I thought the selection would help us connect with the chapter in the psychology text on so-called abnormal behavior, including neuroses. We spoke a little about the Mojave man's definition, comparing it with what the students had read in the text. Then we spent most of the next two and a half hours talking about cultural customs surrounding death. In the story, the young Mojave woman eventually died, and the family had held a traditional Mojave cremation ceremony.

A woman in the class spoke up, "Our people used to cremate bodies. They burned them in the hogan they died in, and then the hogan was respected as their place. The spirit was gone on to another life, but we stayed away from the house out of respect for them and for the place that was theirs now. Also as a way of letting them go."

My mind whirled back to the burned hogan at the base of the mesa in Teec Nos Pos. I knew immediately that my student was describing a ch'íidii baghan, but what she said about it bore almost no resemblance to what my father had told me all those years earlier. Goose bumps peppered my arms.

The student went on talking. "But when you go to a funeral at a cemetery, people just walk all over the place, showing no respect for the bodies of the people there."

Another student spoke up, "Some of us walk around among the dead because we're Christian. I was raised Christian, not traditional Navajo, and Christians don't fear death. We aren't afraid to be near those bodies. We don't have all those taboos about the dead."

Internally my eyes widened. At that moment I could have been back in our 1953 Chevy sedan, riding down the side of the mesa and asking my father about the ch'íidii baghan. This young Diné man could have been my father. He didn't hear the woman who had spoken first. He didn't hear that she said nothing about fear, only about respect. The missionaries had taught him, as my father taught me, that the observances around ch'íidii baghan were about fear of death. This student believed that fear came from not having the comfort of Christianity. His Christian-tinted glasses kept him from seeing it any other way.

In those few minutes of discussion I learned a lot about my father and other Christian missionaries. I thought, If they saw how similar some Navajo beliefs were to their own, they might discover there was little need to convert people. Both believed that the spirit of the dead person went on to another life. Both traditional Diné and Christians believed that the final resting place should be respected. Both believed they needed to let go of the person who had died, trusting that the spirit was still alive. Maybe missionaries had a need to see Diné beliefs and customs around death as fearful, requiring the comfort of salvation, in order to make their task essential.

I wondered if missionaries might have projected some of their own fears about death and dying onto Diné beliefs. I remembered hearing the Bilagáana missionary's wife at Naschitti tell a scary local ghost story—a story she obviously believed. I'd heard as many or more of those stories from White Christians as I had from traditional Diné. I didn't have much confidence anymore in people who claimed to have no fear of death simply because of what they believed—whether it was because Jesus took away the sting of death or because, in the Diné Way, death might be seen as an ordinary aspect of life.

But I also knew Bilagáana traders, who had no interest in converting anyone, tell how traditional Navajos fear the dead. I've heard the same thing from non-Christian Diné, too. "There's so much fear in traditional religion," they say. "Fear of the dead," they add to a list of prohibitions.

Maybe fearing the dead and death is just a part of life that we all brush up against at one time or another. Maybe no one can generalize, as my father and other White missionaries and anthropologists did, "Navajos believe this about death." Or that. There is no reason to think that all traditional Diné believe the same thing about anything, any more than all Christians hold to uniform beliefs.

I find it easiest to trust people who admit they have known both—the fear and the naturalness of death. I imagine that even when they have released their fear, it comes back at times, that we need to confront such a great mystery, such an unknown, more than once in a lifetime. That was true for me, as I went from fearing that old Mr. Arviso would get up from his gurney, trudge up the graveled hill, and stalk down the hallway into the kitchen—from that to being able to bathe and dress patients who had just died. Later on, I could even be present with someone at their crossing over.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


The final installment of "Some Things Were True" will post on Monday, 2/19/24

Please comment and consider sharing with others who might appreciate these stories and reflections.

If you are just joining, you can use the Table of Contents to find your way to the beginning.


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