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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Janice Becenti must have been waiting for me to come out of my stall in the girls' dorm bathroom at the Rehoboth Mission School because she came out of hers right after me. It was morning recess, and we were the only two in there. Janice was a big girl, bigger than me anyhow, and Diné to my Bilagáana. She was in sixth grade, I was in fifth, and we shared a classroom. Her father was a missionary near Crownpoint, and mine was the missionary at Tohlakai at the time. Janice had never paid much attention to me, but I couldn't help feeling a little bit scared of her. She looked me in the eye that day and, seemingly out of nowhere, said, "You know, the Navajo people really like your dad, but they don't like your mother very much." With that she flounced into the room with the long porcelain trough. I watched our soapy water mix and run down the rust-red stripe toward the drain. The water at the mission tasted of salt and iron.

I didn't say anything to Janice to defend my mother, even though she was still the most important person in my life then. She was the person I talked with more than anyone else. I didn't say anything to Janice, not because I wasn't loyal to my mother. I was. It was because I was pretty sure I understood what Janice meant. I even thought she was probably right, and in that moment, I felt sad about my mother. I could have wondered where Janice had gotten this information, but I didn't.



When my mother died four days before her hundredth birthday, our family waited a few months to hold her memorial because of the pandemic. That months-long wait could explain why so few Diné people joined us in celebration of her life. A week or so after we buried her ashes, I had a long conversation with my cousin Cor. She asked me, "How come there were hardly any Navajos at the memorial? I mean, it was in the same church as your dad's funeral, and probably more than half the people at his were Navajo. I could count Navajos on one hand at your mom's."


"You're right," I said. "My dad's funeral was a great reunion with people I hadn't seen for years. After I talked with everyone there, the only food left at the reception was a slice of banana bread. Which I hate." I laughed. And then I suggested that the long wait between Mom's death and the memorial might have had something to do with how few Diné people joined us. "But there's more, I think."

There was a lot more.

I had felt agitated in the days after the memorial, and Cor's question was what I needed to talk about.  People expect you to say good things about the dead at a funeral. If I'm asked to speak, I try to say interesting things, things that will give people a glimpse of sides they may not have known about the person. We had divided my mother's eulogy into three parts because one hundred years is a lot of time to cover. I didn't say anything bad about my mother, but I was careful not to heap praise on her either. There were people who did that. One of my brothers spoke several times about how hospitable my mother had been to Diné people. To my ears what he said amounted to glorification. The implication was that there was something magnanimous about her, and there was an us-them quality to the words that made my skin crawl.

Within a couple of days of the funeral, some truth-telling took place on social media. My nephew Noah posted a nuanced entry about my parents' missionary life. He wrote about how their good intentions and perhaps naïveté had been destructive to a Diné way of life and about how that had been omitted from the memorial speeches. I was grateful to Noah. What he did took integrity and courage. He described my parents' role within the post-colonial system—the way churches and government worked together hand-in-glove to change the Indigenous way of life, to effect assimilation.

But he necessarily left out the specifics that might answer Cor's question about my mother. Because he was of the next generation, he didn't know things I knew, things even my younger siblings don't know. To Noah my mother had been the grandma who looked after him and his brother and sister after school, supplied them with cookies, and put bandaids on their owies.

I hadn't thought about that moment in the girls room with Janice Becenti for years. Noah's post and Cor's question put me back there, and Janice became part of the story I told to Cor.



My mother had decided when she was eight years old that she wanted to be a medical missionary, and after high school she trained to be a registered nurse. After nursing school, she applied to our church's mission board to go to China, but the revolution was in progress there, and China was evicting missionaries, not taking in new ones. Her next choice was Nigeria, but there was going to be a delay in sending her, and the board asked if, while she waited, she'd like to go to the mission hospital at Rehoboth, New Mexico, which served the Navajo Nation.

I've never thought of my mother as especially adventuresome, but being a missionary in a foreign country could be a path to the exotic for a single young woman of my mother's generation and conservative religious background. She was reared with an intense obligation to convert people to Christianity. She embraced the assumption that non-White people in other countries––people of other cultures, anyone seen as Other––needed salvation. Christian duty, not the allure of the unusual, was probably the main motivation for her life choice.

Missionary stories were a staple in my childhood reading. There were tales of single missionary women riding bicycles through the perilous savannah of East Africa. They learned what to me were exotic languages and lived in grass huts shared with snakes and rats. There were women who decided to carry on alone when their missionary husbands were murdered by people who didn't want what they had to offer. Clearly many women of the past and of my mother's own generation had pursued more than duty; they were also drawn to the romance of the unknown when they set out as missionaries.

The appeal of risk and adventure seems more theoretical when it comes to my mother, since she never appeared to be particularly curious about Diné ways. She accepted what other Bilagáana missionaries told her. In general, she was a follower of rules. What she thought was most often something she had received from others. It wasn't that my mother wasn't intelligent, but she wasn't a critical thinker. She had grown up with an overly developed acceptance of authority.

Even if it was duty, not risk or adventure, that attracted my mother to the missionary life, she was quite capable of being intrepid in the face of danger. One Sunday, when she had stayed home in Teec Nos Pos with the little ones, my dad and us older children went off to church services in Beclabito, seven miles away over a dirt road. My mother had put the children down for a nap, then walked over to the chapel to make things ready for the afternoon church service there. Someone had left a bunch of toys on the wooden steps leading to the front door. She bent to pick them up and came face to face with a coiled rattlesnake. For some reason the snake had not sounded its warning. My mother backed off, hands no doubt trembling, and went back to the house for a shovel. She hurried back to the chapel, and found that the rattler had not moved. She lofted the shovel and decapitated the snake, wiped her sweaty palms onto her apron, then went about the rest of her morning.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.


To be continued on Monday, 2/26/24

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