That evening Rick and I took a walk, moving through a geography of change. We strolled slowly because the boy who used to run and leap over rocks like a young goat walks with a limp now. We left the home of Rick's friend Janet, and I witnessed a change in the simple fact of Janet's house. It stands in what looks like a suburban subdivision, common now in communities all over Dinétah. Putting houses close together makes indoor plumbing and electricity easier to install, but the developments also cause some social problems, especially among young people because the traditional Diné way of living is not to live so close together. People refer to the sites as The Housing, no matter which community in the Nation they live in.
The Housing in Teec stands on the hilltop that rises up behind the mission, the place where we lived once. When I was a child, my summer lullabies sounded from that hill, as I lay in bed, my heavy-lidded eyes roving over The Three Monkeys. I watched the mound's colors go from gold to rose to mauve and at last, tones of shadowy charcoal. As stars came out, drumbeats and chanting arose from beside a hogan, the only dwelling on the hilltop in those years.
Now a large cinderblock Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) complex covers the area. There is a water tower with the name Teec Nos Pos painted on it in large black letters. There are teacherages with boarded up windows, a sprawling school with a gym and cafeteria. Everything is painted government mint-green except for the water tower, which is silver. And there is The Housing.
When Rick and I first started our ramble, walking through The Housing, we passed young Diné couples out for an evening turn, pushing baby strollers and holding the hands of toddlers. Some exchanged hellos with us. Others seemed not to see us. I felt what I often feel at times like that—as if I am a ghost. It's because the people I pass can't see me. Not really. They see the physical me, and if they think anything at all, it's probably, "Old White woman." They have no way of knowing that I am rooted here, perhaps as much as they are. That I lived here before they did. That I speak some Diné bizaad. In fact, sadly, I speak more than many young Diné, perhaps more than the ones we're passing. They have no idea that The Three Monkeys formed me as much as the rocks have formed them.
In light of this, I take Terry Tempest Williams's question and twist it around so I'm asking, "How does our perception of place shape the stories we tell about ourselves?" For surely this place has shaped me, but it has created parts of me in ways that can't be seen when someone looks at me.
Rick and I ambled down the old road that was once a dirt thoroughfare for trucks laden with yellowcake uranium. Below stand tall cottonwoods that previously sheltered the former trading post. A year after we left Teec, the post burned to the ground, leaving only the trees and chunks of stone foundation, a few rotting fence posts.
My brothers and sister and I used to walk to the trading post every Saturday, each with a nickel in our pockets. On the way we counted the green lizards that sunned themselves beside the road. Their prehistoric faces made me shiver, and I expected that one day, one of them would dart at me and attack.
In those days, a broad, shaded veranda fronted the dressed sandstone store. Old men sat on a long bench, sharing news and chewing or smoking tobacco. Inside, the building was cool and dark. Wood and glass counters formed a U around the entire floor, displaying a little of every sundry imaginable—Vicks VapoRub, Noxema face cream, Band-Aids; needles, scissors, pocketknives, and cheap eating utensils. Floor-to-ceiling shelves behind the counters held bolts of velveteen and satin, jeans and western shirts, cowboy hats shaped like oversized potato chips. Other shelves contained canned fruits and vegetables, condensed milk and sacks of Bluebird flour. From the rafters hung speckled enamel coffee pots, galvanized tubs, coils of rope, horse collars and saddles, coal scuttles, axes and shovels.
The candy counter to the immediate right of the double swinging doors was our object, and the traders, Mormon brothers, gave us plenty of time to choose among Baby Ruths, Zeroes, and penny candies. While we considered the display, I listened to the brothers speak a creole Diné that even I could hear was heavily accented and hesitant. Later I learned the name linguists gave it—Trader Navajo.
Outside, if women were butchering a sheep behind the hog wire fence next to the trading post, we might stand there chewing our candy, watching them lay the head and the glistening innards on the shiny inside of the sheep's skin. I listened to them talk, too, learning by osmosis the sounds that I was starting to use to form words.
Rick and I kept walking, heading toward the mission. Like everything else, it had changed. The sprawling, cobbled-together adobe we had lived in burned only a few months after we moved away. A modern frame house took its spot. The little white clapboard chapel had been replaced by a large, cinderblock affair. Two things about the mission were the same: the interpreter's modest bungalow was still there, and the oak tree stood halfway up the hill. But it had grown so small, shrunken like an old woman.
Officials said that the house and trading post fires had both been intentional, and now I wonder if the arsonist or arsonists started the fires out of resentment because the White missionaries and White traders had introduced such an alteration to a way of life that once flourished here. When I look back, that possibility seems so obvious, but when I was a child, I felt welcome, that living in Teec Nos Pos was my life, just as it was the life of everyone else who lived there.
© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.
To be continued on Friday, 1/19/24
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