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A WRITER'S WALK

6. APOLOGY

APOLOGY

 

 

Nearly thirty years after Germany rolled over Poland and conducted some of the worst damage of the Holocaust, the German chancellor, Willy Brandt, visited a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. Politicians, dignitaries and journalists stood by as he placed a wreath at the memorial and then, apparently spontaneously, he dropped to his knees.


It was 1970, and 41% of Germans polled were against what Brandt did. They found it humiliating, and many were outraged. Most of the rest of the world thought it was the right thing to do. When he was asked in interview why he did it, he said that just before he did it, he thought, "Just laying a wreath is not enough."


Of most German politicians who had lived through World War II, it could be said that Brandt had the least reason to apologize. He had fled Germany in 1933 to avoid Nazi persecution, was later stripped of his German citizenship, became a Norwegian citizen for a time, and worked against the war in various capacities. He was always opposed to Nazism and the war. And yet, or perhaps because of this, he felt the need to make a bodily apology, not for anything he had done, but for what his country had done.


There are thoughts on both sides of the question as to whether there is value in apologizing for oppressive actions committed by our ancestors. There is a meme going around that says, "White people, no one is asking you to apologize for your ancestors. We are asking you to dismantle the systems they built and you maintain and benefit from." To my thinking, apologizing does not preclude action; in fact, it is one step of an action. An apology signals that we are aware that things must change. It is a message of empathy. It can be a recognition that we are all connected, all in this together. It says, Because my people caused and continue to cause damage, often horrific damage, I have a great responsibility to do something to redress the system.


I don't know if Brandt's 1970 action was indirectly or even directly, responsible for changes in Germany's systemic racism that was at the root of the Holocaust, but later in the 70s German schools began teaching about the Holocaust. However, it wasn't until 1992 that education about the Holocaust became a federal law.


Some cultures honor the ancestors more than others do. In those cultures the connection with the ancestors creates strong, living ties. Perhaps if we felt our relatedness to the ones who went before us, the ones who committed both literal and cultural genocide, we wouldn't question whether we should apologize.


But action must follow apology; otherwise, an apology becomes an easy way out. As pervasive as racism is, it isn't easy to figure out what I can do to dismantle the system that benefits me and oppresses others. In fact, it feels overwhelming and almost hopeless. Then I think about how overwhelming it feels every day to those who live with a knee on their necks.


In my book club of two, we recently read The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee. I'd known that the only way I, as an individual, can be part of dismantling the systems is to choose one area where work is being done and then join others who are doing it, but I didn't know where to start. Each of five chapters in The Sum of Us showed me clear, actionable and effective choices: labor movements, voting rights, abolishment of the Electoral College, neighborhood redlining, and ecological racism. I highly recommend this clear-headed, hopeful book. My essay, "The Obligation," published in Dove Tales by Writing for Peace, also shows paths to action.

 

 

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5. ARROYO

Three Monkeys above the arroyo

The arroyo was the best place in all the world. It was a short trot from the Teec Nos Pos mission to the edge of the arroyo––across the dirt road and the field, which, except for four mulberry trees, a long asparagus bed, and the apple tree at the far end, was a barren patch of gray-brown earth. On the near side, where we slid down, the arroyo wall was sandy. On the far side, rose a round-edged sandstone ledge. Above that, we were always watched over by the great rock guardians atop the Three Monkeys. Willow stands lined the edges of the bed, and they turned a shiny scarlet in winter, offered green shade in spring and summer. The arroyo bed was cream-colored sand, damp beneath the surface; there must've been an underground stream, because much farther up there was a spring-fed pool where our father once took us on a Sunday afternoon walk, and I saw a magical clump of transparent frog eggs floating there, never to be forgotten.

Throughout the arroyo bed there were great gnarled cottonwoods that lifted their golden crowns above the arroyo rim in October. Some curved along the floor of the arroyo and were easy to climb and ride like wide-backed horses.

 

But it was the bed of the arroyo that gave us hours of play. With my brothers and sister, the daughters of the matron at the stone-and-pine government school, and sometimes the trader's children from downstream, we made Diné homesteads in the damp sand. We patted the earth into small hogans, poked twigs into the ground in circle formation and dropped tiny pebbles into the round corrals for sheep. We made summer shelters of more twigs laid across forked uprights, and that took patience, as they fell apart again and again under the weight of the roof twigs. We visited each other's homes and talked for the little people we imagined living in them.

 

Other times we dug shallow square rooms that were our size and lay down in the cool dampness, out of the brilliant sunlight. When we left the arroyo, we might climb up into that apple tree, stunted by scarce water. Each of us claimed a branch and named it, then negotiated property trades. "You can have Big Buttermilk if you give me, Little Texas."

 

We did not know we were weaving together different cultures. We were living our child-lives. The making of miniature homes may be a near universal children's game, or perhaps it once was––before screen time came into being. I heard my father once tell a Diné coworker that he and his siblings had made miniature communities on their farm in Michigan. It's just that our version was Diné. I didn't know that doing this thing that my adult Navajo friends also did when they were children was one of the things that made me like them, despite how different I also was. I didn't know it was one of the things that was making me who I am today. We don't know these things as children.

 

 

Did you have a favorite place, a favorite play, as a child? I'd love to read about it.

 

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3. ALICE WHITEGOAT

Rehoboth Mission Hospital where the doctor gave his advice

I want to introduce you to my friend Alice. Alice Whitegoat. That's not her real name because she asked me not to use her real one in these stories. "Name me Alice," she said. "After Alice Walker." I wanted to give her a surname, too. I've known people with the last name Blackgoat or Many Goats, but no one called Whitegoat, which doesn't mean there aren't any. I decided to name my friend Alice Whitegoat to hold onto Alice Walker's initials.
 
Alice is one of my close friends. She is a wise woman, a painter, a poet, a storyteller, a joker, an activist, an educator, and a consummate networker. She knows famous people—indigenous and not—like Francis Ford Coppola and the late Diné artist and writer Carl Gorman and his even more famous son, the late RC Gorman. She brings a contemporary woman's sensibilities to traditional images in her visual and written art.
 
Alice is also a survivor of boarding schools—both personally and generationally. In fact, she and her mother attended the same mission school that I did, but Alice is ten years older than I am, and though she might have been a student at the high school when I arrived in fourth grade, I didn't meet her then. Nevertheless, the Rehoboth Mission experience is something we talk about sometimes, often with dark humor.
 
Alice also exemplifies heritage language reclamation. When she was three, her parents brought her to the hospital at the same mission where she would eventually go to school. They were concerned because she still wasn't talking. This can happen for lots of reasons, including sometimes when a child is acquiring language for the first time while being exposed to more than one language. That's a perfect setting for them to become bilingual, even though the process may be slower than usual. But the doctor who saw Alice, told her parents to use one language at home. It didn't matter which one. They chose English, thinking it would ultimately make Alice's life easier.
 
And it did. In some ways. Her native brilliance and her facility with English meant that she gobbled up books when she worked as the student librarian at Rehoboth. She eventually got a master's degree from the Harvard School of Education. She was awarded prestigious fellowships and directed several indigenous programs that made a difference in the Navajo Nation. That's how I got to know her. She was my boss in a Native education publishing house. And what a time that was; we were at the forefront of an exciting bilingual education movement. I told Alice once that I feel like the publishing house is where I grew up. She said she feels that too, which surprised me.
 
After working together, we lost touch for a good many years, as I sought to find and establish an identity apart from my roots within the Nation, which I've begun to realize may not be possible. We reconnected at a reunion of the publishing house staff. We've grown closer as friends over the years, visiting in one another's homes, working on projects together, sharing our writing now and then, taking short trips to visit mutual friends, attending her art shows, me having a reading in her home, and phone calls full of laughter.
 
Alice Whitegoat will show up now and then in these posts, so I wanted to introduce her early on. The advice from that missionary doctor made her life easier in one world but more difficult and painful in another. When we worked together back in the 1970s, I saw how painful it was for this ebullient, creative, cutting-edge thinker not to own her own language. She had a high profile in both worlds, but there was always this loss, which she says affected her credibility in the world that was most important to her.
 
Then a while back, I witnessed something that seemed almost miraculous to me. Alice and I had met up with an elderly cousin of hers, who spoke English but not so fluently or easily. I heard Alice speak Diné with her, more Diné than I'd ever heard from Alice. Some of the time it clearly wasn't necessary for her cousin's comprehension, but it was essential for something else. Something we might call meta-communication. Not words or even meaning, but feeling. Something bigger and deeper. Alice had reclaimed her lost language. Later she told me the story of how that began, which isn't my story to tell.
 
In a sort of aside, or perhaps it's a central question, I wonder how the two worlds
Alice had to negotiate––the two worlds even I have had to negotiate––how it may be possible to join them while retaining their distinctiveness.

 

 


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1. ANETH

It was Christmastime, but the red earth was dry, and I rode with my father in the dark green, 1953, Chevrolet mission pickup, the long floor-gearshift between my knees. We took a two-track, dirt road all the way, perhaps thirty miles, from Teec Nos Pos to Aneth, which lies in the small Utah corner of the Navajo Nation. My father drove there every week to give what they called "religious instruction" to the elementary students in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA, now BIE) school. It would be the first and last time that I visited the little stone and pine viga school that was almost identical to the one I had attended in Teec Nos Pos.

 
This time my father would tell the Christmas story, and on the bench seat beside me in the truck sat a cardboard box filled with small brown paper sacks. They were filled with striped hard candies shaped like waves and rectangles, with red and green, yellow and white and purple gumdrops. There were peanuts in their shells, a candy cane, and an orange. Year after year these bags would appear at Christmastime, and there was always an orange.


When he was done telling the story, my father let me pass the bags out to the children. I was no older than most of them. Why should it be me and not some of them who got to give out candy? What was my father thinking when he gave me this task of apparent largesse? What did the children think as I handed each one a bag? I know from some of my friends, now that we're adults, that they probably thought nothing––that I was someone of no consequence in their lives. Their lives were about longing for home, being punished if they dared to speak the only language they knew––their school lives of harsh deprivation both physical and emotional. Maybe they thought about the contents of the bags, hoping they might contain something different from the ones the Mormons and Catholics and the government school itself had passed out a few days earlier. Maybe they were thinking about going home soon, the only time in nine months they would see their families. Maybe they thought about squirreling away all four bags of treats to bring back home and share.


And what was I thinking? Probably not much. It seemed natural that my father would tell me to do this. Perhaps I'd been part of an assembly line that filled the bags. Maybe I felt generous or imagined how generous the other kids might think I was, though the bags didn't come from me. Maybe I was self-conscious. Maybe there were no thoughts; I was just doing one of the tasks that fell to me as a missionary kid, part of something I had been taught and believed with all my heart was a sacred calling.


Whatever thoughts the Aneth school children had, whatever thoughts I had, two images from this event have stayed with me. The first is a deep, narrow ravine our truck crossed and, whether or not he actually said it, some words from my father about how the truck might have difficulty getting down and up the other side. Or perhaps that was my fear, since this was a route my father took every week. The second is just a moving picture of me, a little white girl, being part of the putative missionary largesse.

 

 

I would love to read any comments you'd like to share.

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