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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures




Part II, containing three essays, has a particular focus on the search for identity. "Border Town," a hybrid essay, shows the everyday devastation that exists in and because of towns that border the Navajo Nation. It tells of the nature of borders, about trying to find my place in Gallup, New Mexico, a town on the edge of the Nation—the town that in many ways describes who I am. Two further essays address questions of identity that have persisted into my adulthood. "Naturalization" is about how an interracial partnership left an imprint on my interactions with my Black college students. "A Good Stranger" is a braided essay that explores a search for spiritual identity within the milieu of three distinct cultural identities.







Gallup. The town of legends. Nat King Cole immortalized it in "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." Bob Dylan famously lied that he was raised in Gallup, New Mexico in his first radio interview on the WNYC Folk Festival show. The town likes to call itself the "Indian Captital of the World" and has celebrated this putative status annually since 1921 by holding the Intertribal Indian Ceremonial, hosted by Indigenous performers and attended by visitors from around the world. But in daily parlance, Gallup is more often known as "Drunktown," memorialized as such in the 2015 indie film, Drunktown's Finest.

More than half a century after our family first moved to Gallup, I moved back. People asked why, and their tone said, "Of all places!"

I told them, "It's my hometown." I've often called it that over the years. I write a column for the Gallup Independent four times a year and have had work published in the Gallup Journey. I've had four book signings in Gallup and been interviewed for a feature article in the town newspaper. I volunteered as a writer in residence in a fifth-grade classroom. Two of my seven brothers and my niece and her family live there, and my parents are buried there. Occasionally I join family in Gallup for holidays or for the milestones we share. I've come back for the funerals of schoolmates and their family members.

I call Gallup my hometown, but I don't think of it as home. When I'm asked where I'm from, I say, "Teec Nos Pos." T'iis Názbas in Diné bizaad. But Teec Nos Pos is not home either; it became Home Not Home when we left it.


It was my fault we moved to Gallup in 1957, away from Teec Nos Pos, deep within the Navajo Nation, where my parents were missionaries. To this day, although Teec Nos Pos stands in the western half of the Nation, I think of it as the center. The beloved center. I was nine years old when our family moved, and it was because I had been deathly homesick at the mission boarding school. On my first visit home, I had pleaded with my mother and father not to send me back.

 "You wanted to go," they said. But I hadn't known what boarding school was. "You have to live with your choice," they said to my eight-year-old self. In the end, they decided it wasn't working, but they made me finish out the school year.

On the day we left Teec Nos Pos for Gallup, a long orange moving van pulled up in front of the adobe missionary house. At the very end, our bicycles were tied to the back of the truck, and the truck churned through dust, headed for Gallup. In the way of flashfloods, dark clouds suddenly filled the sky. Rain began to pelt down as we piled into the station wagon. Water cascaded from the sky, and the arroyo across from the mission filled to the brim, muddy brown water raging down toward the trading post.

It was a flood of mythical proportion, and one of the boys took it as a sign. "Maybe we're not supposed to leave," he said.

I'd been thinking it and said, "Yeah. Let's stay."

My mother turned and looked at me. "You'd have to go back to boarding school."

My stomach dropped, and I was silent.

Recently I interviewed a White woman for a writing project. She was consulting on health initiatives in Gallup at the time. "I don't know how much a part of your life Gallup is anymore," she said.

"Always." I said without hesitating.

She laughed, and I smiled. This border town has had a hold on me since I was nine years old, and it probably will as long as I am in my right mind. Gallup is called a border town because it stands on an edge of the largest Indigenous nation in the United States, the Navajo Nation. It is a magnet that both attracts and repels me.

When I'm away from Gallup and see images of the town in the media, I immediately place them in my personal geography. I keep up with current events. I applaud changes for the better and feel bitter sorrow over things that need to change and don't. Over the years I have considered moving back to Gallup more than once.

In fact, I have left and moved back several times. The first leave-taking was outside my control. It happened in 1959, when my only sister was hospitalized at NIH with leukemia, and our family moved to Maryland to be with her. In 1961 we returned to Gallup where I finished high school and then left a second time, this time for college. I came back summers to work at Dandee Supermarket. I'd worked there during high school, too, for $1.25 an hour and a measure of sanity—a world away from the mission school. I returned again in the early 70s to teach, leaving a year and a half later. Back again in 1981 after a life-shattering divorce to live for a few months with my brother's family.


And once again in 2018, something drew me back—back to Drunktown. Back to this border town.

The town sprawls amid once coal-rich hills, a hundred thirty miles from Teec Nos Pos. We had been there only a few times before we moved. It was one thing to drive through, stopping to wait for a passing train or for my parents to do some grocery shopping while we sat in the car for what seemed like hours. It was culture shock to begin living there:
The soft, cream-colored arroyo bottom turns into asphalt

Round hogans are rendered into squares topped by triangles.


Horses and wagons rolling slow in Native time
transform into pickups,
whipping around corners—sudden danger.


Bright blue air traded for a gritty shroud—
twenty-six defunct mining towns still
spread their dust.


Drumbeats and summer chants from the hill
switch to shrill
klaxons of rattling freight trains.

The great golden rock pile becomes hills
peppered with stores, churches, bars.

Gone from the center.

Shifted to an edge.
We moved into the yellow brick house at 213 West Green. Here houses stood close together. Our neighbors were all Bilagáana except for one Japanese family. No Diné lived alongside us anymore. I began to learn, little by little, what a border town was. It has taken me a lifetime to make meaning of it.


© Anna Redsand. All Rights Reserved.




To be continued on Monday, 3/8/24

If you're just joining this serialization, you can use the Table of Contents to catch up or orient you, if you've gotten behind.




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