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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures

CHAPTER I, Installment 3: FISSURES AND CRENELLATIONS

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

Your comments are most welcome.

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Chapter I, Installment 2, FISSURES AND CRENELLATIONS

We didn't live long in Shiprock—a little less than a year because my father had been transferred to the mission in the small valley that was Teec Nos Pos. My mother packed our house into the pickup, and my father took several loads before we all piled in with the last one. We drove west over thirty miles of dirt road punctuated by cobbles the size of babies' heads, bumping at last down into the place that would become home. And yet, it would never really be home, though I would not understand that until I was older. Because we were not Diné, we would always be guests in Dinétah.

 

Where Shiprock was the gray of round river rocks, the white of the flat plains, the secretive blacks and browns of the great monolith, and the narrow strips of green edging the river, Teec Nos Pos was all color. A great rock-and-earth mound of melon pink, verdigris, mauve, violet, chocolate, peach, sorrel, gold, and cream dominated the valley. Atop the heap, gigantic sandstone blocks stood guard over us. Despite their majesty, the guardians had been given the comical name, The Three Monkeys. Dark and light greens of junipers, piñons, and scrub oak, graced the valley. The indigo of the Carrizo Mountains closed off its southern end. Great cottonwoods rose above the arroyo top and gave the valley its name, T'iis Názbas in Diné bizaad—A Circle of Cottonwoods.

 

Teec Nos Pos became the first place where my heart set down tendrils into the Earth, and they are there still. Even now I sometimes dream of that valley. I dream that I have made a tree house in the little twisted oak that seemed so tall when I was small. In my dream, a stream runs beneath the tree, and a huge slab of apricot-colored rock bridges the water. The bridge becomes a path that leads down to an abandoned house covered in scarlet Virginia creeper, a house that never existed, any more than my tree house did. I wander through the rooms of the white, board-and-batten house, trying to find my place. I live in this dream, looking for myself in this house. It happens again and again.

 

***


My brother Rick is two years younger than I, closest to me in age and experience of my seven brothers. More than fifty years after we'd moved away from Teec Nos Pos, he and I took a trip there. It was the first time that just the two of us returned together. We drove the rolling highway from Shiprock and kept long silences, each in our own thoughts. Then, bringing us out of our reveries, I asked him, "How do you think of Teec Nos Pos now?"


"I think of it as the place of my Magic Years," he said without pause.


I looked over at him, a little surprised, waiting for an explanation. "There's this book about early childhood called The Magic Years, and at Teec, I was the age of those years." His face took on a dreamy look, reminding me of the little boy with blue-gray eyes—the boy who was always looking to someplace beyond. He said, "I remember a time when I made a circle of little stones on the dirt and sat down cross-legged in it. I was probably about five. It was by the apple tree. That tree was magical too, because of the names we gave the branches."


I smiled and nodded. We had called the branches Big and Little Buttermilk, Montana, Big and Little Texas, Wonderland. We spent hours owning the branches we sat on, negotiating trades, chattering with each other and sometimes with the traders' children or Sally and Carol Belone, the daughters of the dormitory matron up the hill.


"I was sitting in my circle," Rick went on, "trying to get a tooth loose so I could get a nickel to go to the trading post and buy a Big Hunk candy bar. Pretty soon I was watching these lizards go in out of crevasses in the rock ledge just above the arroyo. I could fly then, too. I had dreams that I was flying."


I asked, "Do you remember the time that Miss Mims called down because you hadn't shown up at school? I guess Mom always called if you weren't going to be there, so the principal was worried when she didn't get a call. Mom told her that she'd sent you an hour earlier. Do you remember this?"


He shook his head.


"Mom went out to look for you and found you sitting on a rock halfway up to the school, watching a pair of birds."


He laughed. "I don't remember that." In that moment, I realized something I would notice several more times on this trip. Our age and gender differences, our personalities, have given us different memories of this place.


Then he asked, "How about you? How do you think of Teec Nos Pos now?"


"I think of it as home," I said. "Even though by the time I was sixteen I knew that I was really only a visitor. I understood that I could never come back here to live. I call it Home-Not-Home."


It was his turn to nod. He knew the reason. Because we are Bilagáana, we can only come back to live temporarily, for professional reasons, unless we had happened to marry someone Diné.


I went on. "Still, it's more home to me than any other place on Earth. When I fill out profile questions, I say that I'm from Teec Nos Pos. I come back to Teec in my dreams." I didn't tell him the specifics of the tree-house dream, the dream of the nonexistent house where I am trying to locate myself.


Later it came to me that the first place we think of as home is not a place. It is a memory of a place. My favorite poet, Rumi, wrote, "It is right to love your home place, but first ask, 'Where is that, really?'"

 

© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.

 

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Chapter I, Installment 1: FISSURES AND CRENELLATIONS

Chapter I

 

Fissures and Crenellations

 

First published in Solstice, Winter, 2019


 

Installment 1

 

How do the stories we tell about ourselves in relationship to place shape our perceptions of place?

~ Terry Tempest Williams, Red
 


 We drove across endless white alkaline flats into the Navajo Nation. It was the first time. No trees, just a few gray saltbushes, some sage, shocks of platinum grass. We drove over dried-up washes that looked like long, narrow jigsaw puzzles. Across the plains to our left ran the blue-black Chuska Range, the off-center spine of the Nation. Far away on the right, tiny rust, orange, and purple boxes lined the horizon; I would learn to call them mesas. Overhead, all around us, wherever land met sky and into the distance above, rose the brilliant, inverted blue bowl. It was 1952. I was four years old.


We rode in the big green Chevrolet Carryall, a forerunner to today's Suburban. My father drove, and my mother sat in the back seat with me and my younger brother and baby sister. We were on our way to what my parents called God's Work. Missionary work. I would be proud of their work until I began to understand how it was an integral part of the devastation that is colonization; then I would take on a task that could return some measure of what proselytizing had taken away.


Somewhere between Naschitti—the Place of the Badger—and Sheep Springs, my father stopped the car to let a flock of sheep cross the road. While we waited for them, my mother pointed to a small, domed structure made of logs and earth. "It's a hogan," she said.


"What's a hogan?"


"It's a Navajo home."


I liked how its roundness hugged the flat land, small and cozy looking. "Are we going to live in a hogan?"


"No. If you live in a hogan you have to chop wood and haul water. You have to do everything by hand—wash clothes, butcher sheep for food, herd sheep—like that lady is doing." She pointed to the woman who followed the flock we waited for—a woman wearing a long dark green satin skirt, a gray jacket, and a paisley scarf tied tight under her chin. "There wouldn't be any time left for Daddy to do God's Work," my mother added.


In an afterthought she said, "They sleep on a dirt floor on sheepskins."


The idea of sleeping on a sheepskin on the floor stirred my imagination. Wanting to live in a hogan became the first inkling of what would grow into my longing to become other, to belong to this place and its people.


The sheep, their herder and a small yellow dog finished their trek across the road, and we started up again. As we neared the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock, the mountain range disappeared. Nothing but flatness surrounded us until, out of nowhere, the giant brown volcanic plug for which the town is named thrust its jagged peaks into the sky. I grew still in the face of something ancient, unshakeable, everlasting.


Then, "What is it?" I asked.


"Shiprock," my father said.

 

Looking back, I understand why my young self was confused. I knew we were going to live in a place called Shiprock, but living within this massive rock, folded into its mysterious crenellations, seemed impossible and also frightening. I asked my father, "Are we going to live there?"


He laughed in the way that can humiliate a child. "No. This is the rock named Shiprock. We're living in the town that's named after it."

 

 

***

 
The town of Shiprock lies close to where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet. On the lip of a hill, on the east end of the village, stood a two-story, square house made of gray blocks. It looked nothing like a hogan; it would be our first home in Dinétah. From then on, no matter where on Earth I find myself, I am always living on the edges of Navajo Country, just as this foreign house stood on the edge of that hill. If not physically, I will always live on those margins in the geography of my mind.


The hilltop was covered in large, smooth river rocks, left from the time when water covered vast expanses of this part of the world. The water had shrunken now to the brown flow of the San Juan River. Enormous gnarled cottonwoods populated the banks, and willow switches waved there—gold-green in spring, scarlet in winter. Diné farmers used the water to irrigate fields and orchards.


Up there on the hill, beside the garden where my father grew corn, string beans, squash, tomatoes and peppers, I played with Bobby and Rudy Yellowhair, my first playmates in Dinétah. Most days we crouched on the ground between the garden and the garage. My father had placed peaches, cut in half, onto window screens on the garage roof so the sun could dry them. Their peachy smell came down to us while we made little Diné homesteads in the soft dirt we stole from the squash hills—hogans, sheep corrals, summer shelters, sweat lodges. This was something Diné children had been doing for years and years, centuries probably.

 

***

 

 

© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.

 

To be continued on Friday, January 12.

 

Your comments are appreciated.

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AUTHOR'S NOTE

Diné Alphabet Card

 

 

Language matters. It especially matters when we talk about contact among cultures and the interstices between them. It matters whether I choose to write "reservation" or "Navajo Nation" or "Dinétah." These three expressions delineate the same locale; yet, on a deeper level, each means something different, and the differences are significant. The language we use to talk about the legacy of colonization––a legacy that virtually no one on Earth escapes––is important. This inheritance carries particular weight in the posts you'll be reading. Accordingly, I have privileged certain words over others, hoping to bring about a small measure of healing by contributing, to a miniscule degree, to the monumental task of decolonization. Thus:


  

• Diné (Navajos' name for themselves) over Navajo, which comes from the Spanish conquistadors;


• Diné bizaad over Diné language or Navajo language or simply Navajo;


• Dinétah, Navajo Country, Navajo Nation, and the Nation over reservation;


• Indigenous or Native over Indian or Native American;


• Bilagáana (the Diné name for Whites) in addition to White;


• When Black, White, or Brown refer to individuals or a group identified by one of these colors, the words are capitalized as proper nouns;


• Words in Diné bizaad are not italicized, except for emphasis or when referred to as words themselves; this is in a recognition of their legitimacy equal to the legitimacy of English.

 

 

 

 

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