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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures

CHAPTER II, Installment 3, IN AND OUT


On a rainy day in August 2014, I took the Railrunner to the First Annual Indigenous Fine Art Market in Santa Fe. From the train I headed for the booth of my long-time friend Ed Singer. After greetings all around and introductions to family members, I walked around the tent, looking at Ed's and his son Monty's paintings. I have always been deeply moved by Ed's work, which combines traditional Diné themes with avant-garde concepts and style. I stopped short in my tour of the booth and stared at a large painting, overcome by the eeriness of it.

The dominant colors are turquoise, rust, and a darkness that is near-black. The painting places the viewer in the interior of a building, looking outward at two open doors. A dark, rusty space separates the doors, and turquoise light streams through both. Exposed pipes of darker turquoise hang above the doors. The door on the left leads to a sloping entryway that disappears beneath a sort of mezzanine guarded by a metal railing. An illuminated orange EXIT sign hangs above the door to the right, and stairs lead from the mezzanine down to that doorway. A visible light source beckons from the upper left corner of the EXIT, making that turquoise brighter than what is seen through the entryway. The interior, despite the turquoise light, is dark and sinister.

I looked at the image for a long time, mesmerized until Ed's life partner, who is White said to me, "It's boarding school."

I gasped and swallowed, and she said, "Everyone who went to boarding school has that reaction." A lump rose in my throat, and tears came to my eyes. I nodded. Despite what she said, I wasn't sure if Sonja knew that I had gone to boarding school. I didn't tell her either.


In so many ways I would have been happier in the Navajo Girls' Dorm, or so I thought. I've learned since then that bullying went on everywhere at Rehoboth. A mission school is no better than any other school in that way. Boarding school is the worst. There is no relief to be had by going home after school. The adult-child ratio in the dormitories is… there is no ratio to speak of. You are on your own.

A Diné friend who went to Rehoboth told me about his first day there. Before taking him to school, Charlie's parents bought him a red toy truck. After they left, he went outside to play with it. Maybe it was a touchstone with home for him, just as the mission pickup had been for me. Larry, a boy who was a few years older than Charlie, sauntered over to him and said, "Gimme that truck."

Charlie said, "It's mine."

"Not anymore."

Charlie told me, "I didn't have an older brother to stick up for me. It was just me. So Larry and another boy tormented me for years until finally I got big enough and mean enough to beat them up. Then it stopped. But it made me a mean person, even on into adulthood. The women I've been close to could tell you that."

My last two years of high school were agony. Five Bilgáana boys, one of them a Van Boven, brutalized me verbally every day. They mocked my voice. They groaned every time I raised my hand to ask a question. They made degrading comments. The trauma was such that I repressed most of what happened from day to day so that now I can barely remember specifics. For years afterwards I doubted that it had even happened, until one of the boys, by then a man, told a mutual friend how cruel they had been to me. Apparently he couldn't tell me directly, but the validation was precious.

All of the adults knew what was going on, and not one of them ever interrupted it. Some laughingly went along with it. I had fantasies of doing what Charlie did—beating those boys up so they had to be carried out of school on stretchers. In the end I decided that my best strategy was to speak in class only when called on.

Not only did the adults fail to interrupt persecution by other children, some of the grownups were also bullies. I missed fifty-three days of school in fifth grade for minor, mostly manufactured illnesses because I was terrified of our teacher. She would come into the classroom when we were all seated, some of us quietly chatting with each other and yell, "All right, if you're going to be as mean as a horse, I'm going to be as mean as a horse." She ridiculed a boy who wet his pants when she didn't let him go to the bathroom.

The boy who wet his pants was Diné, but I have to say for Miss Douma that she was indiscriminate in her terrorization of the class. One day the doctor's son, who was Bilagáana, was foolish enough to make an impudent comment. Miss Douma walked over to him, yelling. She grabbed his hair and shook him until his desk fell over. I trembled in my seat, and that afternoon I went home and told my mother what had happened.

"She's the teacher," my mother said. I knew then that no one would stand up for us in the face of the tyranny that was practiced at Rehoboth by adults and children alike.

The matron in the Girls' Dorm was even more notorious among students than Miss Douma was. Her nickname was a Navajo one, Jaadii, having to do with her thick calves, and she was universally hated.

Ilene Benally was someone I'd known since we were both around six. When we lived at Teec Nos Pos, she and I played together in the small canyon below her mother's hogan and in the arroyo across from the mission. She joined our class at Rehoboth when we were in sixth grade, and we graduated high school in our class of sixteen. At UNM we took some of the same classes and got our degrees while working in the Navajo Reading Study. Later Ilene and I shared an office in a Native American educational publishing house.

One day at work, while we were eating burritos at our desks, we fell to reminiscing. Ilene had just written a contemporary story about a traditional Diné character. When she told me about it, I was carried back to the red-walled canyon of our childhood.

"Remember when we used to pretend to be Pueblo Indians down there behind your mom's hogan?"

Ilene chuckled. "Yes," she said.

We shifted to talking about Rehoboth. I'd always known that Jaadii was mean, but I'd never heard specific stories. Or maybe I'd suppressed them.
"One time, because the dorm room was so cold, some of us hopped into bed without praying first," Ilene told me. "Jaadii caught us. She made us kneel on those hard wooden floors in our nightgowns for an hour, while she sat in her rocking chair, wrapped in her shawl, drinking a cup of cocoa, and smiling. Two days later, we all had colds. One of us ended up in the hospital with pneumonia."

"Did you tell anyone?"

Ilene looked at me askance. "It wouldn't do any good."

I nodded. Bullying is about power and powerlessness. Bullies feel powerless in some way, in some part of their lives, so they exert power where they can. I learned that the five Bilagáana boys who bullied me were frequently beat up by Diné boys who saw them as privileged, and they were correct in their perception. Charlie, who was tormented by Larry, tormented my younger brother in turn. Jaadii and Miss Douma, as single women, were at the bottom of the mission's adult heap. The Rehoboth pastor snickered about them as "unplucked flowers" and "unclaimed jewels" when he taught us catechism.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.




To Be Continued on Friday, 2/2/24

This story is important for its place in the larger context of government and mission boarding schools in Native Nations.

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