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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.



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Representative Debra Haaland



I whooped and whooped again––online and into the air, so my daughter asked, "What?"
"Deb Haaland is going to be nominated Secretary of the Interior!"
I had already decided this was the week for the word hózhó, but I had no idea what I would say. Until I read the news about Deb Haaland (Laguna).
Here is why I call her nomination hózhó. But first I have to tell you, which I usually save until the end of a WORDS FROM FRIENDS entry, that my Diné (Navajo) friend and former colleague, Kera Armstrong gave me this word. I felt utterly humbled and deeply moved that she would trust me to do any sort of justice to such a significant, core, Diné concept. Me, a bilagáana woman.
Hózhó encompasses "a complex wellness philosophy and belief system comprised of principles that guide one's thoughts, actions, behaviors, and speech," according to Michelle Kahn-John, a Diné nurse with a PhD, who has researched the value of traditional Navajo ceremony when integrated with western medical practices. Hózhó expresses such concepts as beauty, balance perfection, harmony, goodness, normality, success, wellbeing, and blessedness.
When things are amiss in the Diné world, the desire, the impulse, is to healing, to restoration of balance, to hózhó. Over the past four years, things in the US have been vastly amiss, until we have endured the worst of it in 2020. We have witnessed blatant disregard for life––in the form of encouragement of violent racial injustice and death at the hands of those entrusted to protect and at the hands of ordinary citizens, intentional destruction of the natural world, and so-called leaders turning their backs on death wrought by a raging pandemic. We have longed for hózhó.
My joy at the naming of Deb Haaland to head Interior comes with the belief that she is a healer, as much as a Navajo haataałi (singer and healer) is. As she has said, "The land is everything," and she has experience fighting the forces that are bent upon taking from the land whatever they want. She is a warrior woman determined to protect the Earth. Many of those lands are Native lands, and she is a fierce defender of Native rights. She will be an invaluable member of an administration committed to healing the devastation that has battered us. More than that, her appointment represents restorative justice, a righting of generational wrongs to Native people by the very department she will now head.
I feel so privileged to have cast a vote to bring Deb Haaland into the House of Representatives in 2018. I pray the Senate will do the right thing and confirm her––an indigenous woman in charge of America's land, water, and Native territories! Hózhónígó. Hózhónígó.

The word hózhó was brought to you by Kera Armstrong, who works on the frontline in the healthcare system at UNM Hospital, for which she deserves our intense gratitude. She remains an incredible source of hózhó to everyone she meets.


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In the early 1980s I was homeless. I didn't think of it that way because to me, at the time, being homeless meant living on the street, which I never did. I was a lost soul, living for days or weeks in other people's homes. At one point I spent three weeks on the UC Berkeley campus, participating in a nutrition study, which gave me room and board and a stipend. From there I moved into an SRO, a Single Room Occupancy, also known as a "residence hotel." I worked at the desk there for my room and board and created an editing and typing business for spare change. I operated a switchboard that had survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and met women who had been shoved out of mental institutions by the Reagan policy. I got to know women from China who were studying for a six-week stint at the Van Ness Business College. I talked every day to a woman who had made the hotel her home since 1936. There was a chiropractor who had lived there for fifteen years. There were transients––tourists from Germany, Ireland and Jamaica, a young lesbian couple coming to the Promised Land from South Dakota, staying in the hotel while they sought jobs and someplace permanent.


In October of that year, I decided to return to New Mexico and the larger Southwest. I could hardly wait. One night, shortly before leaving, I wrote a poem I called "nightsong" about my joy to be coming home. Yet, I would still be homeless for many more months. It was New Mexico that was home and the Navajo Nation that was Home-Not-Home. I was going back to both.


While I was packing to leave New Mexico for Iowa, which I will do a week from now, I found that poem. I didn't know I still had it. So, although I'm leaving my New Mexico home now, it seems fitting to share the poem that tells of my deep connection here.




rain tonight in san francisco

past midnight     on the narrow bed

in the dark           

hear water slapping cement

drainpipes  chuggalugg


missing you

hours    talking    eating        laughing

in our kitchens

playing cards til 4am

hearing willie nelson        on the road again


i am coming home     i am coming

        blue sky

        red rocks

        green chiles

        mutton stew

        lazy brown mud houses

        brown skins

i am coming home


the red earth    wild animals howl at harvest moon

dry corn cracks on Canyon floor

i am coming

my     self wild wide deep   and    voluptuous as

      The Canyon

i am coming home


       golden yellow aspens

       smokey blue mountain ravines

       dust clouds down the road


       i   am   coming   home




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A BIA school like the one I attended

This entry first appeared in The Gallup Independent on June 13, 2020. Published here with permission with minor changes.


I grew up in the Navajo Nation and in Gallup. My parents were white missionaries. For several days now, we have been hearing and seeing rightful outrage about the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman. We are being reminded about many others whose lives have been only because of their skin color. We see and hear the words, "Black Lives Matter." Some people object, saying "All lives matter." Of course they do, but not all lives are in danger the way black and red lives are. The signs should say, "Black and Red Lives Matter," because in the US, police kill Native people at a greater percentage than any other group. These are the people whose lives are in danger from the people who are supposed to serve and protect them.


As a white woman, I have benefited all my life from being white in the US. This looked a little different in the Navajo Nation from how it might have looked in other parts of the country, but without a doubt I benefited because of my skin color. My family always lived in a house with running water. When we lived at Teec Nos Pos, Navajo people drove miles with horse and wagon to fill their water barrels. It could take all day to do this, while we simply turned a tap many times a day, thinking nothing of our privilege. Today 30% of Navajo homes are still without running water, which is a major factor in the extreme force of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation.


In 1954, when I started school, Navajo children were being forcibly taken from home and sent to government and mission boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language. But what could they speak? Not English. They didn't know English. There were no carefully sequenced lessons to teach English as a Second Language. It was sink or swim. I already knew how, not only to speak English but to read it. The principal moved me up to second grade on my first day. I had these educational advantages in that school because I was white.


On my first day of school, after our lunch of government commodity cheese sandwiches and lumpy powdered milk that made me gag, the matron marched us to the dormitory for naps. I knew the matron because her daughters were my playmates. I tried to tell her I didn't take naps anymore, but she acted like she didn't know me and sent me to one of the beds. I thought it meant would have to stay there like all the other children. Never go home again. As soon as the matron left, I rolled off my bed, snuck across the hall, out the heavy metal door, and raced down the hill—home to the mission, sobbing all the way. My mother called the principal and arranged for me to come home for lunch after that. This happened because I was white. The parents of my Navajo classmates couldn't speak to the principal in the "right" language. They didn't have telephones. The government forced them into boarding school compliance.


When I was eight, I was sent to mission boarding school. Unlike the parents of my classmates, my parents weren't forced to send me; it was a choice. Because I was white, I went home every other weekend. The Navajo children went home once during the school year for Christmas vacation. I was terribly homesick. Navajo children were deeply homesick, too, with far more reason—silenced because they didn't know the language, punished for speaking theirs, ripped from land and culture, from all that was sacred to them. Everything but home was familiar for me. I could excel in school simply because of language and cultural knowledge. At the end of that year, my parents moved to Gallup. No more boarding school. They had that choice because we were white.


Once at lunch I asked a Navajo high school student to pass me the milk—in Diné, the Navajo language. I didn't even think about what I was doing. Years later he told me he had thought, "If this little white girl can speak Navajo to me, why shouldn't I speak my own language?" Nothing happened to me because I used Diné. At the end of the school year, that Navajo student was told he couldn't leave with his father until he paid 85 cents. "Why?" he asked and was told, "A nickel for every time you talked Navajo." He didn't know he had been observed and charged. In 1957, 85 cents was money his family didn't have.


I have benefited in literally countless ways––then and still today, simply because my skin is white. Not black or red. These are only a few examples. If you are white, please consider how you have benefited because of the color of your skin. Consider what you can do to dismantle this system of racial injustice.

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