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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Often it is not we who shape words but the words we use that shape us.
~ Nina George, The Little Paris Bookshop


In 1952 our family lived in Shiprock, a village in the Navajo Nation. We lived there because my father was a missionary, something I told people with pride until my early twenties. Something I didn't want to admit for a long time after that. We lived in a large two-story house on top of a hill that overlooked Jack's Trading Post. On that same hilltop, not far from the house that the mission board provided, lived my first Diné playmates, Bobby and Rudy Yellowhair. Every day the boys and I met in a spot of shade between my father's garden and a small wooden garage. My father had spread apricot and peach halves on the garage roof to dry. Every once in a while a breeze brought us the faint sweetness of drying fruit.

We stole soft dirt from my father's squash and melon hills, and from it we created miniature Diné home sites. We snapped thin elm twigs into short pieces and poked them upright into the dirt to form corrals. Tiny pebbles inside the fold became our sheep and goats. A little pile of earth with a bit of twig pressed into the top for a stovepipe became a hogan—a traditional Diné home. Outside the hogan we heaped dried, platinum-colored grass to make an outdoor cook fire. Finally, we peopled our homes with imaginary characters, and then we talked for them.

We started off speaking what linguists have called Dummitawry English. At that time, most Diné who spoke English used this creole, which meant speaking with a Navajo accent sprinkled here and there with Diné words. Often it also included modified syntax. At some point in our play, the Yellowhair brothers would almost always switch to speaking Diné bizaad. I might not notice at first, but when I did, I felt poverty-stricken; I owned only a small bag of Diné words. I closed my mouth for a little while. Then, under my breath I started speaking the longest bit of Navajo I knew—the Apostles Creed. I just wanted the boys to be able to hear that I was speaking Diné bizaad; I didn't want them to hear my actual words because I was ashamed of what I didn't know. I repeated the creed again and again, imagining the little mother flipping fry bread and laying it in a pan on the cook fire. As she told stories to her children, I was saying, "God ataa' t'áá bí t'éiyá alaahgo..." I believe in God, the Father Almighty... .

It had been easy for me to start speaking Dummitawry English. I was learning to speak Diné bizaad at the same time, but that involved conscious thought. In the Diné worldview every person, every animal, every star, is related—connected through a kinship system called k'é. I caught on to the most elementary k'e as I learned the language. When I greeted someone in Diné bizaad, using the right kinship term was simply part of it. If a woman was old enough to be my grandmother, I called her shimásání. If she was my mother's age, she was shimá.

I became versed in small social skills, like shaking hands with a soft passing of palms, rather than the firm clasp-and-shake of the dominant culture. I could see that my father was proud of me, and Diné who visited our home laughed with apparent pleasure when I served them coffee and spoke Diné bizaad to ask what they took in it. "Abe' nínízinísh? Áshiiłikan sha'?" I was pleased, too.

During our first summer in Shiprock, my father went away to learn how to read the Diné language. Early missionaries had created a Navajo alphabet, wanting people to read the Bible for themselves. Later, the Diné-White linguistics team, William Morgan and Robert Young, refined and standardized the written language. When my father came back from his training, he could read the Navajo New Testament from the pulpit pretty well, and he could teach others to read. He taught me at the same time I was learning to read English. I thought this was the natural order of things. More accurately, I probably didn't think about it. Like the rest of my life, it just happened back then, the way life does for children. Our lives don't seem special or unusual because they are ours and we are perhaps more present in them than we will be at any other time. Though I wasn't aware of it, reading in Diné bizaad helped increase my vocabulary. My father's mission thus became some of my earliest lessons in a language that would surround me and return to me for the rest of my life, though it would never be fully part of me.

Less than a year after we settled in Shiprock, our family moved to Teec Nos Pos, deeper within Dinétah. This tiny place was close to the Four Corners—the exact spot where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet. I kept on building tiny Diné home places, now on the floor of the sandy bottom of the arroyo across from the mission. I played with my brothers and sister and with Sally and Carol Belone whose mother was the matron at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) School. I kept on speaking Dummitawry English with my friends and classmates.
Sometimes Dummitawry English slipped out at the dinner table. One of us might say, "Pass da brat, please."

My mother, a vigilant language cop, would correct us immediately. "You mean, 'Pass the bread please.'"

"Say it." We did.

She corrected little oddities we picked up at school. We all called the tallest of my friends Mareeta. "I'm sure her name is supposed to be Marietta," Mom said when she heard me talking about her.

"No, it's Mareeta."

But when Mareeta came for cake and ice cream when I turned seven, my mother called her Marietta. Mareeta, of course, had no idea who she was talking to.

I brought a game home from school and taught it to my sister and brothers. "Whoever's it says, 'Rilla, rilla, rilla, I see something. It is rat. What is it?'"

"You mean, 'Riddle, riddle, riddle. I see something red.'"

I conceded to red instead of rat, as we would say it in Dummitawry English. But, "No. It's rilla, rilla, rilla."

I was interested in language, in traversing more worlds than one, although at the time I saw both worlds as part of my one world, my only world. I have no doubt that I would have become fluent in Diné bizaad on the playground except for the language policies in the schools on the Navajo Nation. Speaking Diné bizaad, even when children came to school with no knowledge of English, was forbidden. Teachers and dormitory matrons punished children if they caught them speaking their own language. The most natural and efficient way for children to learn a second language is from their peers, so at the same time my friends' language was being ripped from them, I was being denied access to that language. I would feel that loss keenly as the years passed. My loss, however, would never be as great a loss as Diné children's was. Knowing how my insufficiency paled next to the costs my friends paid set me further apart from people to whom I wanted deeply to belong.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.


To be continued on Friday, 4/19/24.

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