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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures

CHAPTER II, Installment 4: IN AND OUT


After my first year at Rehoboth, our family moved to Gallup, and I became a day student. But in high school I was so miserable that at the end of my sophomore year I talked my parents into asking the principal if I could double up on classes and do summer school at Gallup High. I had it all figured out how I could graduate a year early. His response, "There's something lacking in her socially. She needs to be in more after-school activities." Now I see that he was blaming me for the bullying I endured. One of the bullies happened to be his son.

It wasn't as if the school offered such a wide array of activities. With six, soon to be seven younger children at home, transportation between Gallup and Rehoboth was a deciding factor. The principal and my parents decided that I could become a boarding student. By that time there was no White missionary kids' dorm, and there was a separate one for high school students, all of whom were Diné with a few Zuni and Hopi students sprinkled in.

I became the first student to racially integrate a dormitory at Rehoboth. Despite the continued bullying by those Bilagáana boys, it would be the happiest year of my time at the mission school. It was also the year that I became deeply, consciously aware of White privilege and racism there. Not long after the school year began, Bilagáana missionaries in the field got wind of the fact that I was staying in the dorm. They were miffed because as members of the General Conference, they had had no input into this decision. That was when I finally learned the ostensible rationale for the existence of the racially separate dorms. It was so White children wouldn't be taking the places meant for Native children who needed to be saved. I wondered yet again why the Diné missionary kids hadn't stayed in the Missionary Kids' Dorm. I still didn't have the word racism in my vocabulary, but I recognized it for sure.

In 1963, the Red Power Movement was rumbling awake. In six more years, Vine Deloria, Jr. a Standing Rock Sioux, would publish Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. But already in 1964, he had become executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, growing its membership from nineteen to 156 tribes. This nascent movement for Native rights had already influenced some of the more vocal Diné missionaries.

The controversy about integrating the dorm was placed on the agenda at General Conference, and I knew I might be sent back to stay at home. However, in the end, those vocal Navajo missionaries won the day, along with some of the White missionaries, including my father. They argued that integrating the dorms was a symbolic gesture of equality, one that could bring more converts into the fold. It was a wise argument, couched as it was in the rhetoric of saving more souls. I was allowed to stay.

Near the end of the year, something happened to validate the Bilagáana missionaries' worst fears. Kee Bitsoi and I were both working on the laundry detail by then and, although he was a class behind me, we were in band and choir together. He asked me to go to church with him one Sunday evening. That might not sound like anything that could possibly threaten anyone, but at the mission it amounted to a very public date. It was like a declaration, and many couples who went to church together on Sunday evenings ended up marrying each other.

I heard audible gasps when we walked down the aisle to our pew, but that was nothing compared to what happened afterwards. The high school dorm had a boys' side and a girls' side with a common living room between. We had two house-parents, Mr. and Mrs. Haverdink. Mister had a nickname—Yogi—because his long torso, and the way he waddled made him look like the cartoon character Yogi Bear. Mrs. Haverdink was so uninvolved on a day-to-day basis that she didn't merit a nickname.

Yogi walked up to Kee and me after the service with fury that had been building during the whole service. Scarlet faced, he pushed us apart and said, "You go this way," to me, "and you come with me," to Kee. As he walked away with Kee, I heard him shout, "I thought you were a nice boy until now."

I was shaking when I got back to the dorm, not in righteous anger, which would have been fitting, but in fear. Yogi had already sent Kee to his room. "Do you want to marry a White boy or don't you?" he shouted at me, so everyone in the living room could hear. To my everlasting shame, I said nothing. I didn't need to because Yogi kept ranting for another five minutes, but I wished I had shouted, "No!" He sent me to my room and told me I was grounded for a week, which basically meant I couldn't go to study hall in the high school library at night. It turned out that Kee had been grounded for the next month, and I was again plunged into shame over the unfairness of it.

Nothing ever came of the incident, except that a week later the principal called me into his office. The only words I remember exactly were, "I guess there's been a storm in the teapot over there." Then he said something to the effect that I should ride it out and maybe not do anything like that again. I nodded miserably and kept my true thoughts and feelings to myself.

I was no longer a boarding student the next year, mostly because I could drive by then and had a job at a supermarket in Gallup. But my stay in the dorm had made me acutely aware that something was drastically wrong at Rehoboth. In Church History class we were assigned a paper about some topic like Martin Luther's ninety-nine theses or the impact of the Gutenberg Bible on Christianity. I got permission to write instead about Rehoboth.

My paper's unwieldy title was "How the Gospel Is Not Presented at Rehoboth Mission." It was replete with examples of oppression, intimidation, privilege, racism and sexism, although I didn't use any of those words. I was developing a social conscience and trying to have an effect on my world in my own way. I think the minister thought he was indulging me in meaningless teenage rebellion by letting me write the paper. Neither he nor anyone else ever talked with me about it. It was as if my attempt to call attention to the wrongs I'd witnessed slipped into an airless void.


To be continued on Monday, 2/5/24

If you're just joining the serialization of Fissure, you can find your way to the beginning by using the Table of Contents


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