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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures



Even as I entered more deeply into knowledge of the Diné worldview, even as I hoped our shared work in the bilingual education movement would repair some of the damage that had been done for well over a century, I began to sense that I would need to go even farther away from home—the home that no longer existed––in order to find home within myself. One evening, after a long day of training kindergarten teachers to use our bilingual-bicultural kit, Lily Roanhorse and I sipped cold drinks in the lounge of the Farmington Holiday Inn. Lily got to talking about what it was like to be college-educated Diné, how it put her and others into an in-between place, always trying to figure out where they belonged. As we talked, I said something about how, if I was in a group with Diné, I often hid what I knew of the language and ways. "I don't want to overstep or act like I think I know more than I do." The underlying message was, "I don't want to be guilty of appropriating something that doesn't belong to me."

I am still moved by the gift of grace that Lily extended to me in that moment. "You have an identity crisis just like we do," she said. "We don't know who we are, and neither do you."

I was so grateful to be seen by her, even though I knew it wasn't the same. I might question where I fit in, just as Lily did, but I was still White. I could avail myself anytime of all the privileges that came with my skin.

I left Diné education because I believed that Diné children deserved Diné teachers and Diné leaders. I felt this was the right order of things, even when another of my teammates in the publishing house, Ilene, told me I could contribute something unique to the work we were doing. "You know the culture from inside and outside," she said. "It means you have a different perspective. We need different perspectives."

Ilene and I shared an office, but we'd known each other since childhood. We had eaten fry bread together in her mother's hogan, and we had played house, pretending to be members of a tribe neither of us belonged to. Later, we graduated in the same class from the mission school and attended some of the same courses at the university.

Despite what Lily and Ilene said and how much I respected them, despite I how grateful I was for what they saw in me, I had to leave. In retrospect, I see that leaving had as much to do with my need to find out who I really was as it did with my vision of Diné educators for Diné students. Both women had offered me a place, a niche, but at the time, I couldn't embody the vision; I couldn't claim it.

In my first move away from things Diné, I trained to be a clinical counselor. Then I left the high desert altogether and traveled and lived in far-flung places—first San Francisco, then Copenhagen, southern Sweden, a farm near the northernmost tip of New Zealand, then back closer to home, just south of Santa Cruz, California. And at last I found my way back to a spot on the eastern edge of Diné Country. I pieced together several different jobs as a counselor in the tiny rural community of Cuba, New Mexico.

Torreon is a Diné community close to Cuba, and I found work there in the BIA school and in the community at large. The present school is a modern cinderblock building, but the old school was still standing, and it housed Headstart and parent programs. Depression era work projects had built schools all over Dinétah, using native stone and pine logs. The schools looked pretty much alike, so when I entered the one at Torreon, I felt I as if I were back in my school at Teec Nos Pos. I experienced a sense of familiarity, of homecoming, and also some of the anxiety I had felt in my first school.

The school at Torreon smelled the same as my old one—like red sawdust sweeping compound, linoleum, Vaseline, and government commodity cheese. I guess I could say it was the smells that brought out the Dummitawry English in me. But really, it was being with people. By then, I had experienced myself in so many different contexts that I had more of a sense who I was. I was more solidly me. But I couldn't help noticing that when I crossed the line into Dinétah, singing welled up inside me. I smiled to myself when I had to stop for a herd of sheep to cross the road. I drank in the mesas and juniper and sage. And I slipped without noticing it back into that different way of speaking. My accent wasn't as strong as when I'd earned Katie Van Boven's scorn, but it was there. My way of joking changed, too, when I hit the Nation. I didn't consciously warn myself to guard the newfound sense of who I was. Yet, unconsciously I took care, always staying aware that I wasn't Diné, old fantasies and wishes to the contrary. I was me—a sort of in-between person, perhaps, but still me.

Sometimes when I was back in the Nation, I noticed that I was an invisible me, and much of that was my own doing. At one point, I contracted to train Diné counselors in a substance abuse program near Cuba. During that time, our staff traveled once on business to the Navajo Nation capital in Window Rock. At lunch, our program director ordered a meal of corn, beans and squash. Jean said, in Diné bizaad, that long ago her people had eaten a vegetarian diet like the dish she was eating.

I was surprised, because roast mutton, mutton stew, and fry bread are mainstays of today's traditional menu, and the rest of us were tucking into our mutton stew with gusto. I said, "T'áásh aaníí?"

Jean turned to me. Carefully, slowly, she explained what she had just said about the vegetarian diet, but she said it in English.

In response, I mirrored her, repeating my words, only in English this time—a polite, "Really?" I said it as if I hadn't understood what she'd said in Diné bizaad.

Even though Jean knew that I had grown up in the Navajo Nation and that I understood and spoke some Diné bizaad, when I said, "T'áásh aaníí?" she had relied on the visual cue of my whiteness. She literally did not hear that I had responded in Navajo to her Navajo. Her overly careful English interpretation of her own words seemed to be an unconscious recognition that something confusing had just happened linguistically, but she apparently had no cognitive or sensory reference points for the event. And I was not about to make any kind of statement about it. I just went with her flow, making myself—my intercultural self—invisible. Jean went on to talk about how, as a child, she'd picked and eaten wild carrots and wild onions. I had done the same thing up on the mountain at Teec Nos Pos. I kept that information to myself too.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To be continued on Friday, 4/26/24

Friday's installment will complete "The Importance of Clear."

On Monday, 4/29/24 the first essay of Part IV, Passage, will post. "Racial Injustice Benefited Me" is a flash essay, and although there are three more essays in the collection, the final three will not be posted on my website, as I am seeking a publisher for the collection.


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