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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Rehoboth Mission Hospital as it looked when I worked there



I'm not sure why the idea of the dead coming back to life is so frightening. In our imaginations, they don't come back truly alive but as the living dead, zombies. The notion defies a most basic natural law.

In my late teens and early twenties I worked in the mission hospital as a nursing assistant. I often worked nights, and it was my task at the beginning of each shift to make rounds of the thirty-bed hospital to see if the patients were sleeping or if they needed anything. That's how I happened to find old Mr. Arviso after he died.

I walked into the men's ward, which had six beds, and in the bed farthest from the door, I noticed that this big, barrel-chested man had removed his hospital gown. Then I saw that his chest wasn't rising and falling. My heart squeezed and rose to my throat, and I watched for a moment longer to make sure he wasn't breathing. I didn't check his pulse but left quickly to find the registered nurse.

Ruth came back with me and after checking his pulse, confirmed my observation. We pulled the curtain around his bed and brought in a gurney. I asked Ruth, "Do I have to touch him?"

"No," she said. "We can use his sheet to lift him onto the stretcher."

The morgue, like all hospital morgues, lay in the basement. But the mission hospital had no elevators, and we had to roll the gurney down a gravelly incline, scored by sizeable ruts from recent rains. There were no outside lights, and it was a moonless night. Although we had strapped the body to the stretcher, gravity and the man's weight caused it to tilt to the side, threatening to tip the gurney off its wheels. Ruth and I giggled, and soon my laughter bordered on hysteria. It was like my father's nervous laughter when he couldn't get that corpse to fit into the box.

Once we'd gotten the body into the morgue, we went about our routines. Ruth went into the newborn nursery to feed babies. I went to the children's ward to make prescribed formulas. Then I powdered rubber gloves and folded them into cloth wrappers so they could be put into the autoclave, sterilized and reused. All night my skin tingled with heightened awareness, and every time I looked in on a patient, it was with the expectation that they might have died since the last time I checked.

Around three o'clock Ruth and I sat down to eat in the windowed corner of the kitchen. Night blackness pressed on the panes. Ruth faced the hallway, and I gazed at the windows. Suddenly she gasped. I jerked, and panic flooded my body.

"What?" I heard the alarm in my voice. I was afraid to turn toward the hallway.

"I forgot to put the nursery bottles into the sterilizer."

I stared at her as my panic decelerated. "That's it?" I said. "I thought Mr. Arviso came back to life and was walking down the hall." We both laughed, but I decided I'd had enough to eat.

Every death I witnessed in the hospital became a little easier, and it wasn't long before I was able to bathe a body, still lying in its bed, to do the work my mother and father used to do when someone died. I still felt unusually alert, though, always aware of the mystery I attended. I felt that anything could happen, that I understood so little about this crossing over. When a body, sometimes hours after death, exhaled for the last time, I startled. It was as if the flesh had heaved a great sigh. My old fear returned momentarily—fear of the dead coming back.


It was my father who taught me to speak my first Diné words. He taught me how to read in the Diné language at the same time I was learning to read English. This was at a time when a minuscule number of people, Diné or Bilagáana, knew how to read in Navajo. From my father I also learned something of Diné beliefs. Many of them were ones he'd learned from other White men. For a long time I believed that what he told me was the way it was.

When I began having adult relationships with adult Diné, I started to see traditional beliefs in a different light. Often I was astounded. At one point I taught an introductory psychology class for Diné College. Except for a Lakota man, all of my students were Diné. In addition to a standard general psychology text, each week I assigned a chapter from Carl Hammerschlag's The Dancing Healers. Carl had both learned from and helped Native patients, healers, and leaders in his practice of psychiatry with the Indian Health Service. I used his book because I wanted to affirm the idea that a Eurocentric approach to psychology is not the only way to look at the human mind. Through story and reflection, Carl offered a unique perspective. I also encouraged my students to bring in speakers from the community to broaden viewpoints about the human condition.

I assigned one chapter from The Dancing Healers for its wonderful description of neurosis. The words came from a Mojave Indian father, speaking to his daughter about some problems she was having in college. He compared the problems to a hardening Jell-O mold, saying "You [cannot] ignore the forces of darkness, or they [will] harden you." I thought the selection would help us connect with the chapter in the psychology text on so-called abnormal behavior, including neuroses. We spoke a little about the Mojave man's definition, comparing it with what the students had read in the text. Then we spent most of the next two and a half hours talking about cultural customs surrounding death. In the story, the young Mojave woman eventually died, and the family had held a traditional Mojave cremation ceremony.

A woman in the class spoke up, "Our people used to cremate bodies. They burned them in the hogan they died in, and then the hogan was respected as their place. The spirit was gone on to another life, but we stayed away from the house out of respect for them and for the place that was theirs now. Also as a way of letting them go."

My mind whirled back to the burned hogan at the base of the mesa in Teec Nos Pos. I knew immediately that my student was describing a ch'íidii baghan, but what she said about it bore almost no resemblance to what my father had told me all those years earlier. Goose bumps peppered my arms.

The student went on talking. "But when you go to a funeral at a cemetery, people just walk all over the place, showing no respect for the bodies of the people there."

Another student spoke up, "Some of us walk around among the dead because we're Christian. I was raised Christian, not traditional Navajo, and Christians don't fear death. We aren't afraid to be near those bodies. We don't have all those taboos about the dead."

Internally my eyes widened. At that moment I could have been back in our 1953 Chevy sedan, riding down the side of the mesa and asking my father about the ch'íidii baghan. This young Diné man could have been my father. He didn't hear the woman who had spoken first. He didn't hear that she said nothing about fear, only about respect. The missionaries had taught him, as my father taught me, that the observances around ch'íidii baghan were about fear of death. This student believed that fear came from not having the comfort of Christianity. His Christian-tinted glasses kept him from seeing it any other way.

In those few minutes of discussion I learned a lot about my father and other Christian missionaries. I thought, If they saw how similar some Navajo beliefs were to their own, they might discover there was little need to convert people. Both believed that the spirit of the dead person went on to another life. Both traditional Diné and Christians believed that the final resting place should be respected. Both believed they needed to let go of the person who had died, trusting that the spirit was still alive. Maybe missionaries had a need to see Diné beliefs and customs around death as fearful, requiring the comfort of salvation, in order to make their task essential.

I wondered if missionaries might have projected some of their own fears about death and dying onto Diné beliefs. I remembered hearing the Bilagáana missionary's wife at Naschitti tell a scary local ghost story—a story she obviously believed. I'd heard as many or more of those stories from White Christians as I had from traditional Diné. I didn't have much confidence anymore in people who claimed to have no fear of death simply because of what they believed—whether it was because Jesus took away the sting of death or because, in the Diné Way, death might be seen as an ordinary aspect of life.

But I also knew Bilagáana traders, who had no interest in converting anyone, tell how traditional Navajos fear the dead. I've heard the same thing from non-Christian Diné, too. "There's so much fear in traditional religion," they say. "Fear of the dead," they add to a list of prohibitions.

Maybe fearing the dead and death is just a part of life that we all brush up against at one time or another. Maybe no one can generalize, as my father and other White missionaries and anthropologists did, "Navajos believe this about death." Or that. There is no reason to think that all traditional Diné believe the same thing about anything, any more than all Christians hold to uniform beliefs.

I find it easiest to trust people who admit they have known both—the fear and the naturalness of death. I imagine that even when they have released their fear, it comes back at times, that we need to confront such a great mystery, such an unknown, more than once in a lifetime. That was true for me, as I went from fearing that old Mr. Arviso would get up from his gurney, trudge up the graveled hill, and stalk down the hallway into the kitchen—from that to being able to bathe and dress patients who had just died. Later on, I could even be present with someone at their crossing over.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


The final installment of "Some Things Were True" will post on Monday, 2/19/24

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We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, fears we have hidden in as if caves. ~ Michael Ondaatje

I shivered when I walked among the graves across the road from the mission. We had to pass through that dry, rocky cemetery with its weathered wooden crosses and sun-bleached plastic flowers on our way to the top of the massive golden mesa beyond it. The graves were pocked with small holes dug by mice and gophers, maybe even snakes. I was afraid I would see part of a dead body, a bony hand reaching out of a hole, a grinning skull, if I looked into one. I felt a sick looseness in my throat when I thought of little animals living down there with decaying bodies.

In the small valley of Teec Nos Pos in Dinétah, my father was Éé'nishoodii Yázhí, Little Long Coat—the Protestant missionary, as differentiated from the Catholic fathers with their long robes. Whenever we came into Teec Nos Pos from the east, we drove down a sharp incline to enter the valley. At the bottom of the hill I couldn't help seeing the charred, broken timbers of a ch'íidii baghan that stood there. I asked my father once about its name, and he said, "It means ghost house. People call it that because someone died in there. Navajos are afraid to live in it after that because they're afraid of death. They break a hole in the north side of the hogan for the person's spirit to leave. Then they burn it. It's such a sad waste of a good home when people are so poor. We want them to know they don't need to fear death because Jesus gives us victory over death through his resurrection."

I nodded. I believed that everything he told me was true. And I shivered then too, even though I also believed I should have no reason to fear death. In my mind's eye I watched frightened people breaking a hole in the back wall of the hogan and then setting their shelter on fire. Chills moved up my spine. I wouldn't go near a ch'íidii baghan myself, if I could help it. I didn't want to see or touch people who were dead any more than I thought the Diné did.


Because he believed they were terrified of death, my father also believed the greatest service he could offer Diné people was helping them bury their dead. He and my mother washed and dressed bodies; Dad built pine boxes, dug graves, and spoke words. I don't know how much comfort he gave because he also believed that he must preach the gospel at every opportunity. Unsaved people might be standing around the grave, and it was his mission to bring them to Christ, even if that meant scaring them with stories of hell awaiting them after death.

One evening at dinner, my father said something to my mother that got my attention. "We were burying that Benally man this afternoon. I got him washed and dressed, and had the box made."

It was his tone that made me look up. I saw his half-smile, which meant he was trying to suppress some emotion. I could tell he didn't want to be smiling, but he couldn't help it. His voice cracked. "The body wouldn't fit in the coffin. It was too tall. I measured him, but I must've gotten something wrong. I took his shoes off, and that helped, but he was still too tall." Dad laughed, a helpless laugh. 
"After that I tried to bend his feet back."


By then I sensed that my father's laughter was about to cross over into something else.


"I was afraid I was going to break his legs," he said. "Finally I got the corpse stuffed into the box." At last he stopped laughing and seemed relieved.

My mother did not laugh. She looked sympathetic. I looked at my father in wonder, feeling that something in him had come close to breaking, if only for a moment.

All I could think about was his hands touching that dead body—corpse he called it. He had touched death that afternoon. My throat underwent that same loosening I felt when I walked through the graveyard. I wanted my father to wash his hands with the gritty gray Lava soap he used whenever he changed the oil in the pickup, the soap that made his hands feel smooth and smell clean. I wanted him to wash them a second time before I would let him touch me.

The night of the too-long body, my father had a dream. He told it to us at breakfast the next morning. "That Benally man sat up in his coffin just after I got him crammed in," he said. He licked his dry lips and started laughing all over again.

I could tell it was a scary dream. Maybe that was the first time I wondered if it was true that Christians didn't fear death.

Sometime later my dad said that he would become a mortician if he ever stopped being a missionary. That is how great a service he believed he was performing when he buried the Diné dead.

I shuddered. I knew that if he handled death every day, he would never be able to wash it off. "If you become a mortician," I said, "I won't ever let you touch me again."

He laughed. "You'd get used to it," he said.

I didn't believe it.




© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To be continued on Monday, 2/12/24


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