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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures



I grew up in the Navajo Nation and in Gallup. My parents were white missionaries. After the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman, we witnessed an outpouring of rightful outrage. Then and now, we are reminded about many others whose lives have been violently ended or damaged only because of their skin color. We see and hear the words, "Black Lives Matter." Some people object, saying "All lives matter." Of course they do, but not all lives are in danger the way black and brown lives are. The signs could well say, "Black and Brown Lives Matter," because in the US, police kill Indigenous people at a higher percentage than any other group. These are the people whose lives are in danger from the people who are supposed to serve and protect them.

As a White woman, I have benefited all my life from being White in the US. This looked a little different in the Navajo Nation from how it might have looked in other parts of the country, but without a doubt I benefited because of my skin color. My family always lived in a house with running water. When we lived deep within the Navajo Nation at Teec Nos Pos, Diné people drove miles with horse and wagon to fill their water barrels. It could take all day to do this, while we simply turned a tap many times a day, thinking nothing of our privilege. Today 30% of Diné homes are still without running water, which has been a major factor in the extreme force COVID-19 exerted in the Navajo Nation.

In 1954, when I started school, Navajo children were being forcibly taken from home and sent to government and mission boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language. But what could they speak? Not English. They didn't know English. There were no carefully sequenced lessons to teach English as a Second Language. It was sink or swim. I already knew how, not only to speak English but to read it. The principal moved me up to second grade on my first day. I had these educational advantages as a day student in that government boarding school because I was White.

On my first day of school, after our lunch of commodity cheese sandwiches and lumpy powdered milk that made me gag, the matron marched us to the dormitory for naps. I knew the matron because her daughters were my playmates. I tried to tell her I didn't take naps anymore, but she acted like she didn't know me and sent me to one of the beds. I thought it meant would have to stay there night after night, which seemed life for always, like all the other children. Never go home again. As soon as the matron left, I rolled off my bed, snuck across the hall, out the heavy metal door, and raced down the hill—home to the mission, sobbing all the way. My mother called the principal and arranged for me to come home for lunch after that. This happened because I was White. The parents of my Navajo classmates couldn't speak to the principal in the "right" language. They didn't have telephones. The government forced them into boarding school compliance.

When I was eight, I was sent to mission boarding school. Unlike the parents of my classmates, my parents weren't forced to send me; it was a choice. Because I was White, I went home every other weekend. The Navajo children went home once during the school year for Christmas vacation. I was terribly homesick. Diné children were deeply homesick, too, with far more reason—silenced because they didn't know the language, punished for speaking theirs, ripped from land and culture, from all that was sacred to them. Everything but home was familiar for me. I could excel in school simply because of language and cultural knowledge. At the end of that year, my parents moved to Gallup. No more boarding school. They had that choice because we were White.

Once at our family-style lunch in the mission dining hall, I asked a Diné high school student to pass me the milk—in Diné bizaad, the Navajo language. I didn't even think about what I was doing. Years later he told me he had thought at the time, "If this little White girl can speak Navajo to me, why shouldn't I speak my own language?" Nothing happened to me because I used Diné bizaad. At the end of the school year, that Navajo student was told he couldn't leave with his father until he paid 85 cents. "Why?" he asked and was told, "A nickel for every time you talked Navajo." He didn't know he had been observed and charged. In 1957, 85 cents was money his family didn't have.

I have benefited in literally countless ways––then and still today, simply because my skin is of the inherited pigmentation we call White. Not Black or Brown. These are only a few examples. If you are what we call White, what about you? 


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved. 


"Racial Injustice Benefited Me" was first published in the Gallup Independent.

This is the final installment of Fissure: A Life Between Cultures that will be published on this website.

On Friday, May 3, I will publish a post about the process of seeking a traditional publisher for a book and explain when the installments that have been published here will be taken offline.

Now is a good time, if you haven't been following to do so. Using the Table of Contents, you will be able to read Fissure straight through, if this is what you've been waiting for.

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