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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


The main border towns are these: Gallup, the most well-known, except maybe Winslow, Arizona because of the Eagles song; there is also Farmington, New Mexico; Cortez in southern Colorado; and Flagstaff and Holbrook, both in Arizona.

These towns both serve and exploit the people of the Nation, the Diné. They supply goods similar to those provided by trading posts in the Nation. They provide commodities that people can't or don't grow or produce and sell larger items like cars and trucks, appliances, electronics, and mobile homes. Border town businesses exploit Native people by selling these goods, especially durable ones, at inflated prices with exorbitant interest rates. In return, businesses pay low prices for fine jewelry and rugs crafted by Diné, Zuni, and Hopi and resell them to tourists at huge profits. Without Indigenous people, tourism in Gallup would be limited to an overnight stay en route to natural wonders like the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley.
People asked why when I said I was moving back to Gallup in 2018. Again. Really, I moved to an edge between edges, to land a few short miles north of town. Gallup and other border towns were built for commerce and religion. They are not lovely. But all around them lies beauty of heartbreaking wonder.
I came back

To hear the wind rise suddenly, soughing through piñon and juniper.

For the hills.
The mesas.


I came
For the flat chocolate slabs of sitting-rocks,
from there to watch the glory
of dusk—the pink flush, gold blaze,
the ginger and orange, the scarlet—
all diminishing to mauve and indigo.


I came
For the smell of rain-washed earth and sage.
For cedar smoke at night.
To cut small sprays of scarlet paintbrush
and purple asters,
to line them with juniper,
place them in a small brown vase.


I came
To hear Diné spoken every day.
To speak Diné with others.
Perhaps to finish something I'd begun.
To make the circle round.


Maybe that.
When we first moved into Gallup, the way I saw Diné people became the greatest shock. I wandered downtown for a cherry coke at the Rexall drugstore or to the library and came face to face with Diné stumbling toward me. Their eyes were red and swollen, weeping, their clothes dirty and torn. When they came close enough, I smelled the sickening sweet stench of alcohol. Sometimes instead of bumbling toward me, they lay in a huddle next to a building, sleeping or blubbering.

When I got home I told my mother, "I'm scared of them."

She said, "You don't need to be scared. If they're drunk, you can knock them over with your little finger." I didn't believe it for a second, but I learned to steel myself and keep walking when a drunk passed me or tried to talk to me.

In Teec Nos Pos people walked upright. The women wore traditional satin and velvet with loads of turquoise-and-silver jewelry. They tended their flocks and fields of corn and melons, took their sheep up the mountain in summer for good grazing. They rolled up to the mission in wooden wagons to fill fifty-gallon barrels with water and gave us rides to the trading post. They brought loads of wool to the trading post to be packed into burlap bags as tall as a man and walked out with coffee and sugar and Bluebird flour.

Close by the border town, Diné women wore long, gathered cotton skirts and button-down cotton blouses, less jewelry. They owned sheep, but not as many. If they drove, it was pickups, not horses and wagons. Homes were tarpaper-covered rectangles, not round, earthen hogans. I saw poverty, but I didn't understand that it was because the original, sustainable way of life was mostly gone, and nothing had replaced it. Alcoholism was evident on the land skirting Gallup, as if the town had slowly leaked into the border and beyond.

The border that cannot be permeated doesn't exist.

I know a man,
carried on his father's shoulders
when he was a baby,
held above the water of the
sewers of Berlin,
crossing the wall from East to West.
Cell walls are semi-permeable membranes.
Our lives depend on the exchange of
nutrients, oxygen, inorganic ions,
waste products, and water
across those thin barriers.
My colleague comes up too close;
I step back.
I excuse myself,
saying my trifocals make
it uncomfortable to stand so close.
But really, our personal boundaries
are not the same.
I tell my Hispanic students,
children of undocumented immigrants,
about marrying my
New Zealand friend so we could
get permission to stay in each other's countries.
"Isn't that illegal?" one of them asks.
"Yes," I say, "but I don't believe in borders.
We should be able to cross
over into any country we want."
They are silent.
No one has said this to them before.
Poland could be said to have
too many borders.
It has been taken,
gained independence,
only to be taken again.
And again.

New Mexico, the state in which
I have lived most of my life,
was taken from Mexico,
along with parts of California,
following the border war
known in the US as the Mexican War,
known in Mexico as
the American Intervention in Mexico.
Borders are in-between places. They are places where contact and contrasts take place. They are places where we rub up against each other and discover differences in language, customs, religions, and life goals. In Gone Native in Polynesia, Ian Campbell writes that culture contact is simply "an abstraction of what happens when people from different societies meet and attempt to satisfy their respective needs." This is a benign view of what happens in the borderlands. But Campbell goes on to add a critical piece, saying which group makes the most cultural adjustments "depends on how important the transaction is to the respective parties, location (on whose territory is the transaction taking place), or which party has the most coercive power." And therein lies the recipe for the conflict that so often happens at borders.


Some boundaries, such as cell membranes, are natural, and, unless a disruptive process such as disease occurs, exchanges pass freely across them, to the benefit of all. But the borders we humans create are arbitrary. Because of their artificial nature, when a crossing is attempted without permission, conflict occurs. The ancestral lands of the Indigenous Tohono O'odham Nation, stretch from southern Arizona in the US into the Mexican state of Sonora. To them the Mexico-US border is eminently artificial. Originally, crossing of boundaries did not exist; there were only homelands.


One of my brothers has lived most of his adult life in Gallup. He says of the conflict that exists here, "I've learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable." Discomfort arises because he lives in the imaginary space that lies between the White and Diné worlds. There is confusion as to where and whether he belongs. It is in the nature of borderlands—this not knowing.

Nighttime, the second Saturday in November, and downtown Gallup is teeming with people in winter coats, scarves, and stocking caps. It is the night of the monthly Arts Crawl. Galleries and shops are lit, doors open. Outdoor vendors sell crafts, coffee, and snacks. The air crackles with good will. Businesses that were once grimy and tired have gotten facelifts, making their facades clean and appealing.

I enter a Diné-owned shop where every piece is thoughtfully and lovingly curated. An outsized painting shows four Yé'ii (Holy People). In a traditional painting, the Yé'ii would be stylized, painted with squared lines, offering no sense of the men beneath the masks. This one is full of mystery, humor and humanness, revealing the emotions and character of the subjects and the artist. Shelves in the store contain sleek marble sculptures, fabric arts that blend traditional craft with contemporary motifs. Black-and- white photos that showcase the high desert.

I leave the bustle and noise of Coal Avenue to see what, if anything, is happening on Route 66. On the way I pass a puddled, unlit alley where the backs of those refurbished fronts reveal dark, rough-hewn stone. The bleak, narrow passage is emblematic of borders, boundaries that still exist, unchanged. Gallup—the same, yet different; changed and unchanging.

Earlier that week, I saw three small Indigenous boys leaning against a low adobe wall in a middle-class neighborhood. They watched two black-and-whites pull up to join a parked paddy wagon. White officers stepped out and joined a Native policeman, the driver of the wagon. I asked myself, Why all the firepower? The Diné officer had already cuffed a Native man who sat on the ground, head bowed. I wondered what the boys were thinking—if they were simply curious, if they saw the unfolding scene as an exciting crime drama, or if they felt ashamed, living in this town where Natives have been unwanted for so long. Except for the money they bring.


©Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved. 


To be continued on Friday, 3/15/24

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