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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


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

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