icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures



I was twelve the summer our family camped in a tiny trailer fifteen miles outside Gallup in Tohlakai. The little green shelter was parked by the chapel where my father was the missionary. The Goldtooths lived a few hundred yards from us. Mr. Goldtooth was one of several people who might show up on a Sunday morning red-eyed, smelling of booze and still under the influence from a twenty-four-hour bender in town. His usual self-control destroyed by drink, he would shout out in the middle of a sermon or prayer. Ours was not a shouting church, so it was noticeable. The yelling ended in loud, histrionic crying. The services went on as if nothing unusual were happening. I knew Mr. Goldtooth hadn't always been that way. He had helped build the chapel on his family's land and had worked as a missionary's interpreter, years earlier.

One night that summer, I got to feel up close how the clash between the border town and Dinétah had seeped across the line into Tohlakai. Our family had finished supper when Birdie Goldtooth came to the trailer. At first, I thought she just wanted to hang out, but then I saw in her eyes that something was wrong.

"My dad's drunk again," she said. "He's really mad. He's yelling and tearing up the house."

My mother heard her. "Why don't you and your sisters come over and sleep in the chapel?" she suggested.

They brought their bedrolls, and I begged to join them. We laid our pallets out on the floor, and the problem of the evening turned into a sleepover. We chattered and giggled until a fist pounded on the door, silencing us. It was Mr. Goldtooth. He yelled at us to open the door. "This is my chapel. I built it. Open the door!"

I tensed. Mr. Goldtooth rattled the door and pounded some more. I was petrified it would come crashing down.

The girls didn't seem fazed, now that we were safely locked in. By silent agreement we said nothing, and he left after what seemed like an hour, though it was probably only minutes. As I lay there, letting my body go soft again, it came to me that being safe was unusual for my friends while being terrified was unusual for me.
At the Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School I was assigned to weed and thin a large field of young parsnips. I noticed that whenever I came to an edge of the field, the parsnips were much smaller and thinner, scrawny really, than those a few rows in. They bore the effects of the wind, the cold, dust from passing cars, and maybe other stresses I knew nothing about.

Ecologists and mappers refer to edge effects, particularly where ecosystems overlap. In those places flora and fauna compete for resources, and the competition can result in peaking or falling biodiversity. For example, where the eastern escarpment of the Andes meets the tropics in Ecuador, a remarkable diversity of bird species lives. Birds find what the mountains have and have not, and all that the jungle has and has not, which creates an environment amenable to diversity but one that also fosters conflict and competition.

Other things happen on ecological edges, too; invasive species exploit the vulnerability of edges. Plants, such as my parsnips, struggle to thrive on the edges. When I was tending the parsnips, I thought of the puny roots as offering a buffer for the vegetables at the center—bearing all the exigencies that occur in the borders. I drew an analogy to people who live on the margins—how we may also provide a cushion for those who live at the center. Maybe there is always conflict, discomfort, in the edge places, in border towns—for everyone—whether Red or White. Some people thrive on the discomfort, find their creativity and growth challenged and become productive, venture farther out. Others bear the brunt of the stresses that come to bear on them at the verge and perhaps retreat toward the center or withdraw into the numbness of addiction. Still others experience the edge and ponder what goes on there.

I love Gallup, and I hate it; my Diné friends testify to this even more than I. When I was young, I didn't know how my Navajo friends felt about Gallup. A Diné woman recently told me, "Natives won't tell you what they really think. They'll tell you what they think you want to hear." I was hurt, and I had a hard time believing it. But it's possible I only get the truth when Diné feel they're talking to each other, and I'm just an invisible observer.

My friend Alice Whitegoat laughs as she tells me about being a teenager in Gallup, sneaking down into the Rio Puerco with her friends on a summer night, about the tattletale who didn't know how to have fun, a Presbyterian convert. And then she shows me the black-and-white photo where she is marching at the front of the protest after the Gallup police shot and killed Larry Casuse. The police had their photo taken, posed over his body as if he were a deer they'd bagged. Three hundred students walked out of Gallup High School the day of Larry's funeral. We never knew the truth of what happened when he was slain—what really went down. Larry had remonstrated hard at the State House in Santa Fe against police brutality and the exploitation of Natives by the Gallup liquor industry. Not until after his tragic death were the state alcohol licensing laws changed.

The summer after Larry Casuse was killed, I went back to UNM to take courses toward my master's degree. One class required a local field study, and I called my project "Gallup: An Ugly City." On a south-side hill I took images of sprawling ranch-style homes with landscaped front yards—the homes of those who profited from liquor sales and from selling the work of Native hands to tourists. I photographed bars and pawnshops. I went to the north side to take images of the condemned hovels in which people still lived.

When I presented my report, a student took exception to my title. "Those houses on the hill," she said, "they're not ugly."

I had already called attention to the fact that those houses were built on exploitation. I reiterated, "The people who own those houses gained their money from alcohol sales to Natives, from price gouging, and unfair lending practices."

The instructor understood and reinforced my argument, but the woman, a public- school educator said, "Still…"

I shook my head.

Gallup. Border town. The place in-between that oozes over its borders. Gallup. My hometown. The place I keep coming back to. The place I love and hate.

I hadn't seen alcoholism in Teec Nos Pos. In Gallup, I heard White grownups speculate that Natives were genetically predisposed to alcoholism. According to the former Director of Substance Abuse Treatment and Prevention for the Navajo Nation, a medical doctor, research does not support the theory of genetic predisposition. In fact, the demographics say there is no higher incidence of alcoholism among the Diné than among any other group of people.

The question then arises: Why does it appear otherwise? One reason is that the Navajo and Zuni Nations, the reservations closest to Gallup, are dry by law. If people want to drink, they must go to a border town or a bar just off the reservation to do so. It is also forbidden to bring alcohol, even in closed containers, into the Nation. This makes Diné who want to drink highly visible in the border towns.

There are root causes for addiction. In this case, colonization in its manifold manifestations destroyed a way of life that functioned well—the way of life that was still largely in existence in Teec Nos Pos in the 1950s. Near border towns, the story was otherwise. The colonial system did not replace that effective subsistence economy with a viable alternative. Colonization has brought with it poverty and often purposelessness to Indigenous peoples the world over.

In the Dinétah, excess drinking numbs the generational pain of trauma and loss—loss of homeland, family, language, and culture. Generations of Native people have been ripped from home and family and forcibly taken to boarding schools where the stated goal was to "make them White," to "pacify" them, "to kill the Indian but save the man."

Sometimes, as on a sheet of stationery, a border serves as the edge; no stationery exists beyond it. More often, a border lies between two places. Sometimes, as with a living cell, the borderline is microscopically thin. Other times there is a space that is much wider than a line, a sort of no-man's-land. When I first came to live in the Navajo Nation, I began a lifelong fall into a fissure between two worlds—into an invisible, yet very real, border. At first, I lived physically close to the center of the Nation. As a child, I thought I belonged there because that was my life. Then we moved to the border town, and I began to know that I had not belonged at the center, after all.

Maybe that is why I have kept coming back Gallup. Because my place is here. In the borderland. The in-between place. Prickly and uncomfortable and rough-edged, full of conflict. We live here together, work here, make our art here. A place where no one quite belongs.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


This is the final installment of "Border Town."

The first installment of "Naturalization will post to this website on Monday, 3/18/24.

Post a comment