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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 4: IN AND OUT

From R to L: Rehoboth High School, Church, HS Dorm behind 2 houses, 1962 

***


After my first year at Rehoboth, our family moved to Gallup, and I became a day student. But in high school I was so miserable that at the end of my sophomore year I talked my parents into asking the principal if I could double up on classes and do summer school at Gallup High. I had it all figured out how I could graduate a year early. His response, "There's something lacking in her socially. She needs to be in more after-school activities." Now I see that he was blaming me for the bullying I endured. One of the bullies happened to be his son.


It wasn't as if the school offered such a wide array of activities. With six, soon to be seven younger children at home, transportation between Gallup and Rehoboth was a deciding factor. The principal and my parents decided that I could become a boarding student. By that time there was no White missionary kids' dorm, and there was a separate one for high school students, all of whom were Diné with a few Zuni and Hopi students sprinkled in.


I became the first student to racially integrate a dormitory at Rehoboth. Despite the continued bullying by those Bilagáana boys, it would be the happiest year of my time at the mission school. It was also the year that I became deeply, consciously aware of White privilege and racism there. Not long after the school year began, Bilagáana missionaries in the field got wind of the fact that I was staying in the dorm. They were miffed because as members of the General Conference, they had had no input into this decision. That was when I finally learned the ostensible rationale for the existence of the racially separate dorms. It was so White children wouldn't be taking the places meant for Native children who needed to be saved. I wondered yet again why the Diné missionary kids hadn't stayed in the Missionary Kids' Dorm. I still didn't have the word racism in my vocabulary, but I recognized it for sure.


In 1963, the Red Power Movement was rumbling awake. In six more years, Vine Deloria, Jr. a Standing Rock Sioux, would publish Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. But already in 1964, he had become executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, growing its membership from nineteen to 156 tribes. This nascent movement for Native rights had already influenced some of the more vocal Diné missionaries.


The controversy about integrating the dorm was placed on the agenda at General Conference, and I knew I might be sent back to stay at home. However, in the end, those vocal Navajo missionaries won the day, along with some of the White missionaries, including my father. They argued that integrating the dorms was a symbolic gesture of equality, one that could bring more converts into the fold. It was a wise argument, couched as it was in the rhetoric of saving more souls. I was allowed to stay.


Near the end of the year, something happened to validate the Bilagáana missionaries' worst fears. Kee Bitsoi and I were both working on the laundry detail by then and, although he was a class behind me, we were in band and choir together. He asked me to go to church with him one Sunday evening. That might not sound like anything that could possibly threaten anyone, but at the mission it amounted to a very public date. It was like a declaration, and many couples who went to church together on Sunday evenings ended up marrying each other.

 
I heard audible gasps when we walked down the aisle to our pew, but that was nothing compared to what happened afterwards. The high school dorm had a boys' side and a girls' side with a common living room between. We had two house-parents, Mr. and Mrs. Haverdink. Mister had a nickname—Yogi—because his long torso, and the way he waddled made him look like the cartoon character Yogi Bear. Mrs. Haverdink was so uninvolved on a day-to-day basis that she didn't merit a nickname.


Yogi walked up to Kee and me after the service with fury that had been building during the whole service. Scarlet faced, he pushed us apart and said, "You go this way," to me, "and you come with me," to Kee. As he walked away with Kee, I heard him shout, "I thought you were a nice boy until now."


I was shaking when I got back to the dorm, not in righteous anger, which would have been fitting, but in fear. Yogi had already sent Kee to his room. "Do you want to marry a White boy or don't you?" he shouted at me, so everyone in the living room could hear. To my everlasting shame, I said nothing. I didn't need to because Yogi kept ranting for another five minutes, but I wished I had shouted, "No!" He sent me to my room and told me I was grounded for a week, which basically meant I couldn't go to study hall in the high school library at night. It turned out that Kee had been grounded for the next month, and I was again plunged into shame over the unfairness of it.


Nothing ever came of the incident, except that a week later the principal called me into his office. The only words I remember exactly were, "I guess there's been a storm in the teapot over there." Then he said something to the effect that I should ride it out and maybe not do anything like that again. I nodded miserably and kept my true thoughts and feelings to myself.


I was no longer a boarding student the next year, mostly because I could drive by then and had a job at a supermarket in Gallup. But my stay in the dorm had made me acutely aware that something was drastically wrong at Rehoboth. In Church History class we were assigned a paper about some topic like Martin Luther's ninety-nine theses or the impact of the Gutenberg Bible on Christianity. I got permission to write instead about Rehoboth.


My paper's unwieldy title was "How the Gospel Is Not Presented at Rehoboth Mission." It was replete with examples of oppression, intimidation, privilege, racism and sexism, although I didn't use any of those words. I was developing a social conscience and trying to have an effect on my world in my own way. I think the minister thought he was indulging me in meaningless teenage rebellion by letting me write the paper. Neither he nor anyone else ever talked with me about it. It was as if my attempt to call attention to the wrongs I'd witnessed slipped into an airless void.


**
*

To be continued on Monday, 2/5/24

If you're just joining the serialization of Fissure, you can find your way to the beginning by using the Table of Contents

 

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CHAPTER II, Installment 1: IN AND OUT

A BIA school like the one at Teec Nos Pos

"In and Out" was first published in Isthmus, Special Political Issue, 2016

 

Anadarko. Chilocco. Haskell. Riverside. Intermountain. That's where the giant olive-green, formerly military buses were headed. Far away to Oklahoma, Kansas, California, Utah. I watched with admiration as teenagers hefted their shiny enameled cobalt or black footlockers into the bellies of the buses and then climbed aboard. The girls wore shirtwaist dresses with full skirts, bounced out by crinolines. The boys had on startlingly white shirts and brand new dark blue jeans, black or white cowboy hats.

 

The buses lined up beside the little Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) School. Each bus stood there for a whole day, while horses and wagons came and went—parents bringing their children to buses that would take them to boarding schools far away. At day's end, the buses roared off, raising dust as they passed the mission below the school—the mission where I stood watching.

 

I loved the names of those places. They sounded like poetry. Anadarko—full of mystery. Chilocco—a sound of music. Intermountain—surrounded by majesty. Riverside—a green paradise. "Someday I will go to boarding school," I thought, and I knew it would be a romantic adventure.

 

I was five, living on the small mission post in Teec Nos Pos in the northeast part of the Navajo Nation. My first year of school had been a kindergarten correspondence course from the Calvert School in Baltimore. Missionaries the world over used the Calvert Course, but the next year my parents arranged with the principal that I would attend the BIA school.

 

"She won't be on the books," the principal said, "because it's not really legal for her to attend."

 

"What about report cards?"

 

"She'll get a report card, but we just won't include her in any of our reports to the Bureau."

 

My parents were sticklers for rules, so it's surprising that they agreed to this arrangement, having me be a sort of ghost student.

 

"We can't have her in first grade, though," Miss Mims added. "The other kids will still be learning English, and she already knows how to read." She gave my mother a look of disapproval.

 

On a bright September morning, my mother walked me up the hill for my first day of second grade—my first day of "real" school. The building had been constructed as a Works Project Administration (WPA) effort during the Depression and was built of native sandstone and pine vigas. We entered the cool, dark hallway, and I was assailed by unfamiliar smells that I would soon enough identify as sawdust sweeping compound, petroleum jelly, and Government commodity powdered milk, pressed pink lunchmeat and pale yellow processed cheese.

 

We marched down the quiet, empty hall to my classroom. My mother knocked, and Mr. Washington answered. Silent children filled all the seats but one. Perhaps the arrangement with Miss Mims had been reached after the school year started, and that explained the already full classroom. Mr. Washington pointed to my seat, and my stomach went queasy. We started work, and between reading, coloring, adding and subtracting, I forgot that my mother was gone.

 

Before lunch I found out where the petroleum jelly smell came from. We girls went into a bathroom to wash up by the long porcelain trough with its many faucets.

 

Afterwards, the others took large dollops of Vaseline from a container in the coatroom and spread their faces, hands and arms with it to protect against the desert air. I imitated them. We trouped into the dining hall, where I learned about the powdered milk, pink meat and pale cheese. My stomach got queasier.

 

Then Mrs. Belone came in, and I was happy to see her. Hers was the first familiar face I'd seen all day. She was the mother of Sally and Carol, the girls we played with in the apple tree, down in the arroyo, and in each other's houses. But she pretended that she didn't know me. "Line up! Line up! Time for your nap," she shouted.

 

"What?" I didn't say it out loud, but I was thinking it. "How could this be? What's happening? I don't take naps anymore. And why does Mrs. Belone sound so mean?"

 

She got us marching to a room with rows and rows of narrow metal beds. Striped seersucker bedspreads covered them—light and dark green ones and pink and maroon ones.

 

Mrs. Belone led me to a bed. "Here. You sleep here."

 

I tried to say, "But I don't sleep here. I don't stay here." But she was gone to some other part of the room where two boys were tussling with each other and laughing. She got that out of them right away.

 

I lay stiff and straight on top of my pink and maroon spread. I was terrified that this could mean I would be staying here permanently. Mrs. Belone left. My bed was near the door, and I rolled off of it, being as quiet as I could. The springs squeaked, and I stopped. No one said anything or did anything. I got to the floor, hunched over, and scooted to the door. It was open a crack, and I slipped out, looked both ways down the dark hall, saw no one, and made a dash for the outer door. It was heavy, made of metal, and it made a loud creak when I pressed the bar to open it. I squeezed through, and launched into a run. I didn't stop until I was home.

 

My mother looked surprised, when I dashed into the kitchen. Between gulped breaths, tears streaming, I said, "I don't want to go to school anymore. They're trying to keep me there. I had to go in this room and go to bed. They want me to stay there. And Mrs. Belone pretended like she doesn't even know me." I stopped and looked up at my mother, then I added, "And the food tastes awful."

 

She got on the phone to Miss Mims. I waited, hoping I wouldn't have to go back ever again, and listened to my mother's end of the conversation. When she got off the phone, I said, "Do I have to go back?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Noo. I don't want to. Please."

 

"You have to. But you can come home for lunch and have your nap here."

 

"But…" I was pleased but puzzled. "I don't take naps."

 

"We'll see about that. You have ten minutes. Then you have to go back up."

 

As soon as things were settled, I felt ashamed. I knew the other kids' mothers couldn't call Miss Mims and get things changed for them. I knew they had to eat the lunches, take naps in that big room, eat supper there, and sleep there at night. I was glad I didn't have to, and I felt guilty for being glad. What had happened didn't fit with my sense of fairness. But I wanted the reprieve anyway.

 

***

 

© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rightds reserved.

 

If you missed the first essay, "Fissures and Crenellations," you can read the entire essay by going to the Table of Contents.

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To be continued on Friday, 1/26/24

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CLARENCE CLEARWATER'S BLEND OF CHRISTIAN AND TRADITIONAL NAVAJO SPIRITUALITY

My interview with Clarence Clearwater about his spiritual journey was the first interview I posted on my website, back in 2015. I am reposting it because when I removed my blogged book, To Drink from the Silver Cup Clarence's story was inadvertently removed as well.

Wild West Junction in Williams, Arizona looks like a movie set, although it’s a little too upmarket for that. Arranged around a courtyard where Wild West reenactments and musical performances take place, the buildings contain a restaurant, a saloon, a bed and breakfast, a bookstore specializing in local history, and more. My schoolmate from elementary and high school, Clarence Clearwater walked into the cool semi-darkness of the Branding Iron Restaurant on a late afternoon in early August and led me to a back corner where we sat on rustic benches across a pinewood table from each other. He ordered an Arnold Palmer and I got an iced tea.

Clarence and I both attended  Read More 
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