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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures





Sometime after my father's years of preaching were over, he, my brother Ed, and I went for a drive after a holiday dinner. We saw a man by the side of the road with his thumb out. Seeing the hitchhiker triggered a memory for my dad, who still had memories then, and he told us about recently picking up a Navajo man.

"He was a young man," my father said. "I asked him where he was from. He said Twin Lakes. I told him I used to hold Sunday night services there. 'Oh, you're a missionary,' he said. Then he asked me, 'Why did you missionaries ever come here? Why did you have to come and destroy our culture?' He was so bitter. So angry." Dad sounded bewildered. "I told him that wasn't true. We loved their culture."

Ed is much more able than I am to confront both of our parents with the flaws in their logic, and he does it lightly. He is a middle child, while I am the firstborn. Gently he said, "Really, Dad, you were. Destroying their culture." I was grateful to Ed for articulating what I thought but felt unable to say.

"No." That was all my father said, his voice laden with sorrowful protest. Not understanding. Maybe he even recognized a grain of truth in the young man's words or in what Ed said. He could not accept it.

Neither of my parents would have said that converting people to Christianity was also about converting them from traditional Diné ways to White ways of living. Within their missionary circle, few if any questioned whether or not those might be the same thing—Christian belief and mainstream culture in North America. It didn't occur to them that they were interlarding the majority way of life into their message, as if that were part and parcel of Christianity.

My mother's viewpoint was filled with her own pain, which so often caused her to be caustic. Her acceptance of the received missionary and government perspectives flowed through her demeaning speech and actions. The physician's first principle, "Do no harm," was also embedded in my mother's nursing practice, and she followed it, as so many other rules, to the letter. But she limited that code to providing physical medical help. She saw the effort to force Indigenous assimilation as a good thing, not harmful. And generally, as Janice told me in the girls room, she was not liked by people who saw deeper than her willingness to provide nursing care.

My father was a critical thinker, though always within the framework of a World War II veteran, a patriot, and a zealous evangelical Christian missionary. He was also, in many ways, a humanitarian, insofar as that did not conflict with his religious beliefs. As my mother's corrosiveness came from her early pain, my father's desire to help came from his pain as the son of a physically abusive father, whom he was determined not to emulate.

Curiosity is often a saving grace, and my father had it even after he began to lose his mental faculties. I, too, was curious about the Diné world that surrounded me. I wanted to learn to speak Diné bizaad. I ate the food, absorbed the love of the people I knew and loved them back. I embraced my parents' beliefs during childhood, but I sometimes secretly edged outside them. I relished my summer lullabies––the ceremonial drums and chanting that floated down from the hill above the mission. I would have liked to peer around a juniper tree when I heard them, to see what was happening, no matter how much I also believed my mother and father when they condemned the happenings.

From the stories I've told here, it's clear that, as a child, I observed and absorbed the differences in the ways my mother and father lived as guests in Navajo Country. Their ways often contrasted sharply, rising to the level of heated verbal conflict between them. Not until I reached high school did I begin to disagree with the beliefs they shared, even when they lived them out differently. It would be several more years before I understood the damage caused by how White missionaries drew a separation between religion and culture, thinking in all sincerity that they were offering a great gift. However, on an unconscious level I was deciding where I stood. At first, as children often do, I aligned myself without knowing I was taking a stand.

I have a sharp memory from when I was four and hadn't lived in Navajo Country for long. The house the mission board had assigned us in Shiprock stood on a hill overlooking the main road. The living room had a large picture window that looked directly onto Jack's Trading Post. We could watch people pull up in their horse-drawn wagons and go in bearing hand-woven rugs, bags of raw wool, or Bluebird flour bags wrapped around turquoise and silver jewelry. They came out with Bluebird sacks full of flour, red cans of coffee, bags of sugar, and boxes of canned goods. Old men sat along one exterior wall of the trading post visiting while their horses ate from their nosebags.

One day, we had visitors from Michigan, and they stood watching the scene unfold below. I was playing on the living room floor, when I heard one of them say, "Just look at those Indians down there."

By then I probably knew that Diné could be called Indians, but I heard something denigrating in the tone. Somewhat righteously, I imagine, and without a pause, I said, "They're not Indians. They're nice Navajos." I wasn't punished; I would remember it if I had been. But I was undoubtedly reprimanded for disrespecting an adult.

As an adolescent I became conscious of wanting to truly belong to the people who surrounded me, to be one of them. There is a minor incident that stands large in my memory. Our high school choir was bussed to Red Valley, Arizona, where our church had one of its missions. Before our performance, the Navajo church ladies stood behind long tables to serve a traditional Navajo meal of mutton stew and frybread. We lined up on the other side, and when I reached the tables, Mrs. Redhorse (Diné), the wife of the missionary there, greeted me by name. She handed me a bowl of stew, and I picked up an industrial sized salt shaker and shook a generous amount into my stew. Mrs. Redhorse laughed. "You're just like us. You love salt." A warm glow suffused my chest. I had been seen. Some White students stood near me, and I hoped they'd heard her. I wanted them to know who I belonged with. I had added all that salt because I knew that traditional foods were cooked without it. You were expected to add it later.




When the washing of diapers, the canning of fruits and vegetables, the cooking of gallons and gallons of soups and stews had been done, when there were no more church services to accompany, and most of all, when my father had more or less retired, my mother's harshness softened and diminished. My father preached whenever he was asked, until he fainted one Sunday on the podium. He continued to deliver Bibles to a stand at a Gallup truck stop, and he went regularly to the nursing home where he would spend his last years, so he could read the Bible in Diné bizaad to residents there.

In North America at large, in the Navajo Nation, and even in the evangelical mission world, an emergence from post-colonial policies and practices was in progress, and this seems to have had something of an effect on my mother. When she moved from my youngest brother's home into a nursing home, she was genuinely pleased to have a Diné roommate, a woman she already knew. Two days after Hilda's death, my mother had a stroke, and four days later she passed away. To me, this was not unlike a spouse dying within days of their partner. I chose to take my mother's departure so close to Hilda's as additional evidence that she had changed and grown with changing circumstances in the world around her.
I hesitate to write that my mother's prejudices can almost be seen as a gift because I am definitely not advocating or excusing her racism. But if Janice was right, and I think she was, my mother's expressions of antipathy, even when only felt, not heard, could have given the Diné people who knew her something to resist. It was probably unlikely that anyone would abandon their traditions because of her influence. Or maybe I'm projecting, and her attitudes eventually became something for me to confront.

My father's genuine interest in the people he met, on the other hand, made it more likely that they would readily trade in their traditional practices for Christianity along with its cultural trappings. It was my father's example I followed as a guest in Dinétah. In fact, perhaps how I related to life around me was one of my earliest steps away from both of them––taking my own path, which would turn out to be different from both of theirs. I didn't feel as if I was taking any sort of a stand. I was only doing what seemed natural.

Acculturation is generally defined as adaptation to a culture different from one's own, typically the dominant one. I acculturated in certain ways, not to the culture that prevailed in the US at the time and at home, but to the one that surrounded me and dominated so much of my early life. No one exerted any pressure on me to assimilate, the way the US government and missionaries did on Indigenous people. I did so mostly unconsciously because Diné people surrounded me with love and acceptance, because I viewed what enfolded me as positive, desirable, and natural, whether in spite of or because of my parents' varying views and actions.


Recently my brother Rick interviewed a Diné woman on her thoughts about missionaries. She was a child in Teec Nos Pos when our family lived there and attended the mission school. She spoke of how missionaries entered Diné homes without a thought as to whether or not they were welcome or belonged there. "And we served you food. This wasn't reciprocated." And then she said, "But your family invited us into your home." Her voice took on a sound of surprise, almost amazement. She repeated it. "You had us into your home! And your mother served us cookies. She gave us medicine, probably from her own stash. We knew she was," and here she used the Diné phrase meaning, the one who carries medicine. She laughed, "She was a pharmacist. From her own stash."

"From her own stash" was an incorrect but generous assumption. In reality, the hospital at Rehoboth provided my mother with various medicines she could distribute, including injectable penicillin. But the interview with Sharla helped me see my parents, and especially my mother, in a different light from what Janice had said to me in the Girls Room. We all have public and private personae, and in this telling of how I saw my parents encounter and influence the lives of many Diné people, I have exposed what went on behind the scenes. Sometimes the private spilled over into the public enough that people saw my parents in contrast to each other, in the way that Janice had undoubtedly overheard it from adults.

In a conversation with my mother, a few years before her death, I said something about her attitudes toward the Diné people. Her reply has left me still parsing the layers of its meaning. She said, "You and Dad always loved them so much. I felt like there wasn't any room for me to love them."


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.


This is the final installment of Chapter IV of Fissure: A Life Between Cultures, "In the Girls Room."
Serialization of Fissure, will continue on Friday, 3/8/24 with the first installment of

Part II, Chapter V, "Naturalization."

If you are just joining this serialization, you can use the Table of Contents to find your way to the beginning.

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