icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures

CHAPTER II, Installment 5, IN AND OUT


Years later, sitting in our shared office, I told Ilene about that paper. She said, "You saw that back then? I didn't even see it until much later."
This is one of the things that happens when you have a foot in both worlds, or when you live in a crack between two worlds. You see things with different eyes. I was always aware, from the day I ran away from the BIA school in Teec Nos Pos, when my mother got the rules changed for me, that my experience of boarding school was both the same and different from what it was for my friends.

All of us still recognize the same boarding school smells and the taste of government commodity foods. Even though I went home for lunch at Teec Nos Pos, commodity foods were once again part of my diet when I attended Rehoboth, both as a day and a boarding student. We can reminisce about the games we played, about our nicknames for teachers and each other. We can tell stories of things we did together and things that happened to us.

I often become a listener rather than a teller of these stories, afraid of appropriating the pain or indignity that belongs to a friend. I cannot yet explain to myself or anyone else how it is that I quantify and qualify and assign value to their suffering and mine. Perhaps the pain cannot be quantified. There is pain in being a representative of the group that colonized, and there is pain in having been colonized. The sources of the pain are different.

I did face the loss of family and home, as my friends did, but it was for a relatively short period of time with breaks in between. My parents could and did exercise agency; my friends' parents most often did not have the same choices. A couple of years ago my friend Lila, who is one of the most phenomenal teachers I know, told me about attending the big BIA school at Shiprock.

"The administration decided the dorms and classrooms were too crowded," she said. "So they sent some of us students to the school in Teec Nos Pos. Just sent us without letting our parents know. My older brother was still an elementary student. They called him into the office and told him that when our dad came to get us, he had to be the one to explain where I was.

"My dad was a very protective father. First when he got to the school to take me home for the weekend he was worried when he couldn't find me. He went to the office, and they called my brother in. He explained to my dad in Navajo. My father was furious."

I know that this did not and would not have happened to White parents whose children attended boarding school.

My friends' culture was ripped away from them; while my culture was being reinforced for me, it was forced on them. All was familiar to me, foreign to them. Winter is the time when sacred Diné stories are told and games are played. Strict rules prohibit teaching these cultural foundations at other times of the year. This meant that my friends gradually lost their traditional teachings. Ironically, one of my father's interpreters sat with my siblings and me in the evenings after eating supper with us and told us some of the very stories that were being taken from the rightful heirs.

Little is so core to our humanness, our uniqueness, as our mother tongue. That precious essence, Diné bizaad, was systematically suppressed in an effort to remove it entirely, to make everyone English Only. Diné students were punished for using their own language in boarding school; yet I heard it sometimes on the playground. For them there was the multifaceted and deep grief of language loss and the partial loss of identity that went with it.

For me there was a different sort of grief around language. Because my friends weren't allowed to speak Diné, I never learned to use it fluently. The most natural way to learn a second language is in a social setting with one's peers. I'm aware of this loss in so many ways—being able to catch only parts of conversations; dreaming in Danish (in which I am fluent) and joyously thinking in the dream that I am speaking Diné bizaad with a friend, only to awaken and discover the reality; feeling envious of younger Whites who grew up in the Nation and are fluent in Diné bizaad because language policies had changed by their time. Nevertheless, I am aware that my loss is different from the losses my friends endured.

The traumas inflicted by the boarding school system are generational for Native people. Great-great grandparents of children now in school were taken from their homes to be "Americanized," and their losses are compounded from generation to generation. In the early days, many children died at boarding school of grief or from physical punishment or illness.

Nevertheless, not everyone talks about negative experiences in boarding school. When I asked Lila if she was frightened when she was moved from the Shiprock school to the Teec Nos Pos one, she said, "Oh, no. I was with all my friends. They were like family. And I knew that road. I knew I had relatives there because my dad was from there." To this day, Lila is one of the most positive people I know, always finding the bright side of things but not in a superficial way, so I believed that what she said was genuine.

Not long ago, I attended the funeral of an upperclassman at Rehoboth. I went mainly because I knew one of my classmates would be there. She and I stood outside the church catching up after the service, and as we stood there, I overheard a classmate of the woman who had died talking about Rehoboth. "Yeah," she said loudly, "they say we were abused there. I say they abused us pretty good because we're still all part of that church." The women she was talking to laughed with her. I thought she might be carrying a pretty heavy load of denial.

Charlie, on the other hand, has the self-awareness of someone who has done his work and can speak about his experience of boarding school in a balanced way. He talks about the bullying and abuse that was endemic to the system. He talks about the hypocrisy he saw in the missionaries. But he also says that he is grateful for the excellent academic education he received. "I can speak articulately and think critically, and I got that there—at Rehoboth," he says.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from my friend Alice Whitegoat. She attended Rehoboth about ten years before I did. Alice wrote that her niece had been at the Indian Health Hospital in Shiprock. "My niece saw this woman we know. The woman was so thin and wasted. Her hair had gone completely white, and she was barely able to walk without assistance."

This friend had attended Rehoboth, too, and, until recently, had been a strong presence in Navajo education. "She told my niece that she was suffering, but she couldn't remember what her illness was called. She turned to her husband to ask him. 'Depression,' he told her. She started to cry. She said she can't stop crying."

Alice asked me, "Is that a Rehoboth disease?"

I wanted to cry.


I don't forget Ed's painting. I imagine small Diné children lined up, marching in and down that ramp that looks like a livestock chute. I imagine teenagers marching down the steps, back into the light, forever changed. And I imagine myself standing in that dark, rusty space between the two doors.

"In and Out" was first published in Isthmus, Special on Politics, 2016

This is the final installment of Chapter II of Fissure, "In and Out." 

The first installment of Chapter III, "Some Things Were True," will post on Friday, 2/9/24

Please comment.

Please share with someone you think might be interested.

Post a comment