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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures

CHAPTER II, Installment 5, IN AND OUT

***


Years later, sitting in our shared office, I told Ilene about that paper. She said, "You saw that back then? I didn't even see it until much later."
This is one of the things that happens when you have a foot in both worlds, or when you live in a crack between two worlds. You see things with different eyes. I was always aware, from the day I ran away from the BIA school in Teec Nos Pos, when my mother got the rules changed for me, that my experience of boarding school was both the same and different from what it was for my friends.


All of us still recognize the same boarding school smells and the taste of government commodity foods. Even though I went home for lunch at Teec Nos Pos, commodity foods were once again part of my diet when I attended Rehoboth, both as a day and a boarding student. We can reminisce about the games we played, about our nicknames for teachers and each other. We can tell stories of things we did together and things that happened to us.


I often become a listener rather than a teller of these stories, afraid of appropriating the pain or indignity that belongs to a friend. I cannot yet explain to myself or anyone else how it is that I quantify and qualify and assign value to their suffering and mine. Perhaps the pain cannot be quantified. There is pain in being a representative of the group that colonized, and there is pain in having been colonized. The sources of the pain are different.


I did face the loss of family and home, as my friends did, but it was for a relatively short period of time with breaks in between. My parents could and did exercise agency; my friends' parents most often did not have the same choices. A couple of years ago my friend Lila, who is one of the most phenomenal teachers I know, told me about attending the big BIA school at Shiprock.


"The administration decided the dorms and classrooms were too crowded," she said. "So they sent some of us students to the school in Teec Nos Pos. Just sent us without letting our parents know. My older brother was still an elementary student. They called him into the office and told him that when our dad came to get us, he had to be the one to explain where I was.


"My dad was a very protective father. First when he got to the school to take me home for the weekend he was worried when he couldn't find me. He went to the office, and they called my brother in. He explained to my dad in Navajo. My father was furious."


I know that this did not and would not have happened to White parents whose children attended boarding school.


My friends' culture was ripped away from them; while my culture was being reinforced for me, it was forced on them. All was familiar to me, foreign to them. Winter is the time when sacred Diné stories are told and games are played. Strict rules prohibit teaching these cultural foundations at other times of the year. This meant that my friends gradually lost their traditional teachings. Ironically, one of my father's interpreters sat with my siblings and me in the evenings after eating supper with us and told us some of the very stories that were being taken from the rightful heirs.


Little is so core to our humanness, our uniqueness, as our mother tongue. That precious essence, Diné bizaad, was systematically suppressed in an effort to remove it entirely, to make everyone English Only. Diné students were punished for using their own language in boarding school; yet I heard it sometimes on the playground. For them there was the multifaceted and deep grief of language loss and the partial loss of identity that went with it.


For me there was a different sort of grief around language. Because my friends weren't allowed to speak Diné, I never learned to use it fluently. The most natural way to learn a second language is in a social setting with one's peers. I'm aware of this loss in so many ways—being able to catch only parts of conversations; dreaming in Danish (in which I am fluent) and joyously thinking in the dream that I am speaking Diné bizaad with a friend, only to awaken and discover the reality; feeling envious of younger Whites who grew up in the Nation and are fluent in Diné bizaad because language policies had changed by their time. Nevertheless, I am aware that my loss is different from the losses my friends endured.


The traumas inflicted by the boarding school system are generational for Native people. Great-great grandparents of children now in school were taken from their homes to be "Americanized," and their losses are compounded from generation to generation. In the early days, many children died at boarding school of grief or from physical punishment or illness.


Nevertheless, not everyone talks about negative experiences in boarding school. When I asked Lila if she was frightened when she was moved from the Shiprock school to the Teec Nos Pos one, she said, "Oh, no. I was with all my friends. They were like family. And I knew that road. I knew I had relatives there because my dad was from there." To this day, Lila is one of the most positive people I know, always finding the bright side of things but not in a superficial way, so I believed that what she said was genuine.


Not long ago, I attended the funeral of an upperclassman at Rehoboth. I went mainly because I knew one of my classmates would be there. She and I stood outside the church catching up after the service, and as we stood there, I overheard a classmate of the woman who had died talking about Rehoboth. "Yeah," she said loudly, "they say we were abused there. I say they abused us pretty good because we're still all part of that church." The women she was talking to laughed with her. I thought she might be carrying a pretty heavy load of denial.


Charlie, on the other hand, has the self-awareness of someone who has done his work and can speak about his experience of boarding school in a balanced way. He talks about the bullying and abuse that was endemic to the system. He talks about the hypocrisy he saw in the missionaries. But he also says that he is grateful for the excellent academic education he received. "I can speak articulately and think critically, and I got that there—at Rehoboth," he says.


A few weeks ago, I got an email from my friend Alice Whitegoat. She attended Rehoboth about ten years before I did. Alice wrote that her niece had been at the Indian Health Hospital in Shiprock. "My niece saw this woman we know. The woman was so thin and wasted. Her hair had gone completely white, and she was barely able to walk without assistance."


This friend had attended Rehoboth, too, and, until recently, had been a strong presence in Navajo education. "She told my niece that she was suffering, but she couldn't remember what her illness was called. She turned to her husband to ask him. 'Depression,' he told her. She started to cry. She said she can't stop crying."


Alice asked me, "Is that a Rehoboth disease?"


I wanted to cry.


***


I don't forget Ed's painting. I imagine small Diné children lined up, marching in and down that ramp that looks like a livestock chute. I imagine teenagers marching down the steps, back into the light, forever changed. And I imagine myself standing in that dark, rusty space between the two doors.


 
"In and Out" was first published in Isthmus, Special on Politics, 2016

This is the final installment of Chapter II of Fissure, "In and Out." 

The first installment of Chapter III, "Some Things Were True," will post on Friday, 2/9/24

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CHAPTER II, Installment 3, IN AND OUT

***


On a rainy day in August 2014, I took the Railrunner to the First Annual Indigenous Fine Art Market in Santa Fe. From the train I headed for the booth of my long-time friend Ed Singer. After greetings all around and introductions to family members, I walked around the tent, looking at Ed's and his son Monty's paintings. I have always been deeply moved by Ed's work, which combines traditional Diné themes with avant-garde concepts and style. I stopped short in my tour of the booth and stared at a large painting, overcome by the eeriness of it.


The dominant colors are turquoise, rust, and a darkness that is near-black. The painting places the viewer in the interior of a building, looking outward at two open doors. A dark, rusty space separates the doors, and turquoise light streams through both. Exposed pipes of darker turquoise hang above the doors. The door on the left leads to a sloping entryway that disappears beneath a sort of mezzanine guarded by a metal railing. An illuminated orange EXIT sign hangs above the door to the right, and stairs lead from the mezzanine down to that doorway. A visible light source beckons from the upper left corner of the EXIT, making that turquoise brighter than what is seen through the entryway. The interior, despite the turquoise light, is dark and sinister.


I looked at the image for a long time, mesmerized until Ed's life partner, who is White said to me, "It's boarding school."


I gasped and swallowed, and she said, "Everyone who went to boarding school has that reaction." A lump rose in my throat, and tears came to my eyes. I nodded. Despite what she said, I wasn't sure if Sonja knew that I had gone to boarding school. I didn't tell her either.


***


In so many ways I would have been happier in the Navajo Girls' Dorm, or so I thought. I've learned since then that bullying went on everywhere at Rehoboth. A mission school is no better than any other school in that way. Boarding school is the worst. There is no relief to be had by going home after school. The adult-child ratio in the dormitories is… there is no ratio to speak of. You are on your own.


A Diné friend who went to Rehoboth told me about his first day there. Before taking him to school, Charlie's parents bought him a red toy truck. After they left, he went outside to play with it. Maybe it was a touchstone with home for him, just as the mission pickup had been for me. Larry, a boy who was a few years older than Charlie, sauntered over to him and said, "Gimme that truck."


Charlie said, "It's mine."


"Not anymore."


Charlie told me, "I didn't have an older brother to stick up for me. It was just me. So Larry and another boy tormented me for years until finally I got big enough and mean enough to beat them up. Then it stopped. But it made me a mean person, even on into adulthood. The women I've been close to could tell you that."


My last two years of high school were agony. Five Bilgáana boys, one of them a Van Boven, brutalized me verbally every day. They mocked my voice. They groaned every time I raised my hand to ask a question. They made degrading comments. The trauma was such that I repressed most of what happened from day to day so that now I can barely remember specifics. For years afterwards I doubted that it had even happened, until one of the boys, by then a man, told a mutual friend how cruel they had been to me. Apparently he couldn't tell me directly, but the validation was precious.


All of the adults knew what was going on, and not one of them ever interrupted it. Some laughingly went along with it. I had fantasies of doing what Charlie did—beating those boys up so they had to be carried out of school on stretchers. In the end I decided that my best strategy was to speak in class only when called on.


Not only did the adults fail to interrupt persecution by other children, some of the grownups were also bullies. I missed fifty-three days of school in fifth grade for minor, mostly manufactured illnesses because I was terrified of our teacher. She would come into the classroom when we were all seated, some of us quietly chatting with each other and yell, "All right, if you're going to be as mean as a horse, I'm going to be as mean as a horse." She ridiculed a boy who wet his pants when she didn't let him go to the bathroom.


The boy who wet his pants was Diné, but I have to say for Miss Douma that she was indiscriminate in her terrorization of the class. One day the doctor's son, who was Bilagáana, was foolish enough to make an impudent comment. Miss Douma walked over to him, yelling. She grabbed his hair and shook him until his desk fell over. I trembled in my seat, and that afternoon I went home and told my mother what had happened.


"She's the teacher," my mother said. I knew then that no one would stand up for us in the face of the tyranny that was practiced at Rehoboth by adults and children alike.


The matron in the Girls' Dorm was even more notorious among students than Miss Douma was. Her nickname was a Navajo one, Jaadii, having to do with her thick calves, and she was universally hated.


Ilene Benally was someone I'd known since we were both around six. When we lived at Teec Nos Pos, she and I played together in the small canyon below her mother's hogan and in the arroyo across from the mission. She joined our class at Rehoboth when we were in sixth grade, and we graduated high school in our class of sixteen. At UNM we took some of the same classes and got our degrees while working in the Navajo Reading Study. Later Ilene and I shared an office in a Native American educational publishing house.


One day at work, while we were eating burritos at our desks, we fell to reminiscing. Ilene had just written a contemporary story about a traditional Diné character. When she told me about it, I was carried back to the red-walled canyon of our childhood.


"Remember when we used to pretend to be Pueblo Indians down there behind your mom's hogan?"


Ilene chuckled. "Yes," she said.


We shifted to talking about Rehoboth. I'd always known that Jaadii was mean, but I'd never heard specific stories. Or maybe I'd suppressed them.
"One time, because the dorm room was so cold, some of us hopped into bed without praying first," Ilene told me. "Jaadii caught us. She made us kneel on those hard wooden floors in our nightgowns for an hour, while she sat in her rocking chair, wrapped in her shawl, drinking a cup of cocoa, and smiling. Two days later, we all had colds. One of us ended up in the hospital with pneumonia."


"Did you tell anyone?"


Ilene looked at me askance. "It wouldn't do any good."

I nodded. Bullying is about power and powerlessness. Bullies feel powerless in some way, in some part of their lives, so they exert power where they can. I learned that the five Bilagáana boys who bullied me were frequently beat up by Diné boys who saw them as privileged, and they were correct in their perception. Charlie, who was tormented by Larry, tormented my younger brother in turn. Jaadii and Miss Douma, as single women, were at the bottom of the mission's adult heap. The Rehoboth pastor snickered about them as "unplucked flowers" and "unclaimed jewels" when he taught us catechism.

 

© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.

 

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To Be Continued on Friday, 2/2/24

This story is important for its place in the larger context of government and mission boarding schools in Native Nations.

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