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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Shiprock from the red rocks of Beclabito

Rick and I kept walking, heading toward the mission. Like everything else, it had changed. The sprawling, cobbled-together adobe we had lived in burned only a few months after we moved away. A modern frame house took its spot. The little white clapboard chapel had been replaced by a large, cinderblock affair. Two things about the mission were the same: the interpreter's modest bungalow was still there, and the oak tree stood halfway up the hill. But it had grown so small, shrunken like an old woman.

Officials said that the house and trading post fires had both been intentional, and now I wonder if the arsonist or arsonists started the fires out of resentment because the White missionaries and White traders had introduced such an alteration to a way of life that once flourished here. When I look back, that possibility seems so obvious, but when I was a child, I felt welcome, that living in Teec Nos Pos was my life, just as it was the life of everyone else who lived there.


As we came to the old places on our walk, I got out my camera several times. I needed to photograph the curve of the road from the old trading post to the mission, the rosy Three Monkeys under the pinking sky, the shaved off hilltop where I once went to school. I needed to do this to assure myself, "This is still the same place. Some things are different, and some are the same, never changing. Yes, I really did live here once. Yes, this place, really is a part of who I am."

Even more than the present-day photos, I need to look at the old ones sometimes. At home I get out a cardboard box, softening with age. In it I find a picture of Rick and me standing in the mission yard, eating yellow slices of casaba melon from my father's garden, the Three Monkeys behind us. I'm wearing baggy shorts and a striped polo shirt, my brown hair skinned back into tight French braids. Rick, with his blond GI clip has on shorts, too, but his baby belly hangs bare over the elastic waist. The picture leaves no doubt that I was here. I am real in this place, not a ghost.


I first learned to call the immense rock formation Shiprock, the name Bilagáanas gave it because it resembles a clipper, a two-masted, tall-ship, rising out of the desert sea. Much later I would learn its Diné name, Tsé Bit'á'í, Rock with Wings, for the lava dikes that extend outward for miles from the plug. They make the rock appear, especially from above, like a winged bird in flight. Reigning over the land as it does, it is small wonder that the rock holds a prominent place in Diné lore.

Any time we drove up and out of the valley of Teec Nos Pos for provisions or doctor visits, we passed close by the great monolith. As soon as one of us sighted it, we began to chant, "I see-e Ship-a-rock. I see-e Ship-a-rock." The rest joined in and carried on in unison until we exhausted our parents' patience. Up close the Winged Rock resolved into mysterious vertical fissures and crenellations—feathers of the great bird. As with most features of the land called childhood, Shiprock was just there. When we are young, life just is; we do not know that it is perhaps remarkable. We do not know what deep impressions it is making on us. We live in the present.

A few years after Rick's and my nostalgic trip to Teec Nos Pos, I visited my friend Alice Whitegoat who lives near Shiprock. Alice is an accomplished poet and painter, my supervisor when I worked in a Native publishing house. I drove to her place, not from Teec Nos Pos, which would have put me up close to Shiprock (the rock), but from the east. I crested a rise, and off in the distance it rose—the most iconic element in the landscape of my childhood, now seldom seen. My heart leapt, its striations set to thrumming, "I am home. I am home."


Way over there, it looks small, as small as the nail on my little finger. But I know. I know the way it towers over the flats dotted with platinum grasses and a few clumps of gray-green salt weed. The rock dominates the terrain, as though nothing else can exist there—a colossal volcanic neck, its spikes piercing the brilliant blue.

"I am home. I am home." It rises from my throat as the rock itself rises from the depths of the Earth. I can't help it, as much as I try to tell myself it isn't true. "You are not home," I remonstrate. "You are here on sufferance." In childhood there were no questions. Then I thought Dinétah belonged to me as much as it did to Rudy and Bobby Yellowhair, to Sally and Carol Belone, to the children we played with in the Teec Nos Pos arroyo, on the branches of the stunted apple tree. Now I know that wasn't how it was.

When I got to Alice's, we sat out on her patio in the dying light. I told her about how I sang when I saw the rock.

"Really?" She said. I couldn't tell what she felt.

So I added the renunciation, "I know it's not really my home. I can't claim it."

She didn't say anything. I decided her silence was tacit agreement. I said nothing more about it. I pulled back on the strings of my heart.

Our first arrival in Shiprock began a long and endless fall into the fissure that lies between two cultures. Alice sometimes shares with me her poetry in progress, and in her songs I hear hints of her own in-between places. Most of the Diné I know have those cracks in their lives to one degree or another because Dinétah has been under occupation for so long. Alice has expressed this crevassed life with rare eloquence and humor. Once I wrote to her after reading one of her poems, "Even though you and I live in different in-between fissures, they could well be parallel arroyos."

Days after my visit, seeming to go back to our conversation on the patio, and apropos of nothing I had written recently, Alice wrote me. It was as though she'd been thinking about it all that time. "Shiprock.  Belongs to you. Your love of Shiprock is legitimate and is for anyone, and it doesn't matter what color you are so long as your blood is red."

Whatever prompted her words, they were a blessing, and with the blessing came tears. Shiprock and Teec Nos Pos, Dinétah, are places that shape the stories I tell about myself.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.


This is the final installment of "Fissures and Crenellations," which was first published in Solstice, Winter 2019.

On Monday, 1/22/24, the first installment of "In and Out," first published in Isthmus, Special on Politics, 2016, will post. It's a White girl's experience of government and mission boarding schools in Dinétah, plus stories about boarding school from her Diné friends.

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