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In the dark it could be anywhere.

Then darkness lifts




And it is 

Becoming New Mexico.


Dim light rises

Above juniper-freckled mesas

Curved rocks the red of humans

Colors deepen in the damp and dawn light.


The day becomes New Mexico.


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"Planters of Seeds" first appeared in Gallup Independent "Spiritual Perspectives" on September 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.


I was heading back to my car with a basket of groceries when a pickup truck moved slowly, purposefully toward me in the parking lot.


"Oh no," I thought. "Am I about to get mugged?"


A young man leaned out the truck window and asked, "Are you Ms. Redsand?"


"Ye-es," I said, still hesitant.


"I'm Donald Benally [not his real name]. You were my counselor in 5th grade. I was a transfer student that year, and I kept getting into trouble in the classroom and on the playground. I was failing pretty much everything."


As he continued to talk, I walked over and stood beside Donald's window. Gradually I recognized the round cheeks and dark, sparkling eyes of that mischievous fifth-grader. He went on, "You held a parent conference for me. You talked about the stuff that wasn't going too good. Then you told me how smart I was. You showed me the specific ways I was smart—like how good I was in math when I tried. You said I could do anything I wanted to. I believed you. I finished high school early, and then I went to community college. I became an airplane mechanic. I work over at the airport." He grinned and opened his wallet to show me a picture. "This is my baby daughter."


I got goose bumps and a lump in my throat listening to Donald. We chatted for a bit, and as he got ready to drive home, he said, "Thank you, Ms. Redsand."


With my heart in my throat, I said, "No. Thank you, Donald. Thank you so much. Thank you for stopping to tell me that I made a difference in your life. More than that, thank you for believing in yourself."


I can't count the many times I told a student how capable they were, that they could do anything they chose to do. After thirty-nine years as an educator, I can count on two hands the number of times that I found out, years later, that a student had believed what I told them, that they had caught the ball I tossed them (so to speak) and run with it. Donald stopping to tell me the positive effect I'd had on his life is something I've treasured ever since.


Over the years, I survived and thrived as a counselor and teacher by reminding myself that I was a planter of seeds, especially when I worked in the field of substance abuse. I knew that if I expected to see results with every client or every student, I would make myself crazy. Results weren't in my hands or in my words. Sometimes I planted a seed, and I got to see a tiny sprout. I had to find meaning in that, if I was going to carry on. And then sometimes, someone like Donald would come along, and I would get to see how the seed had blossomed.


The opportunity to be a planter of seeds is a great privilege and a life lesson. When we plant seeds in our gardens, we do tend them; especially here in the Southwest, it's essential that we give them water. We also need to weed. But aside from that, the harvest is mostly out of our hands. It lies in the DNA and health of the seeds themselves, in the sun, and in the miracle that is photosynthesis.


So, too, with the human lives we are privileged to touch for the better. We say or do what we can, and then we let go and let the growth happen. It may be that another gardener comes along to water and weed. That letting go isn't always easy. We so often want to see our work come to fruition for the sake of the person who may be hurting. And it's natural to want to be valued, to have our work acknowledged. The fact is that most of what happens after we plant the seed is not up to us. There are other influential people and circumstances in the lives of those we encounter. It is good to be thankful for the seed and the soil in which we could do the planting. It is an immeasurable gift when we are allowed to know that we made a difference in the life of someone who needed what we had to offer.


Because it is the beginning of the school year, and even though there are many other planters of seeds, I want to give a special shout-out to teachers and school counselors as they plant seeds throughout the coming year. May the soil be rich and receptive. May you be gifted with the knowledge that you make a difference.

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The brick that kept me searching

As my brother Rick and I sat by my campfire at Quaking Aspen, I mentioned that I planned to explore and take photos at the old Ft. Wingate school the next day. He told me there was a small cemetery to the east of the school and thought I might like to try to find it. He said it was a graveyard used to bury some of Pancho Villa's captured soldiers that had died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. So when I finished my photo shoot, I walked out on an overgrown, two-track dirt road that led east, outside the chain link fence but inside the gate across the asphalt road leading into the school.


I lost the road a couple of times and was about to give up my search as the morning grew hotter, but then I saw the altered brick (left) lying next to the road. I thought maybe it had been a makeshift grave marker. "I'll go a little farther, then," I said to myself. A few steps later I suddenly made out gray headstones and two rusty gates, wide enought to admit a hearse or wagon bearing coffins, in the distance.


I estimated there were around 70 standing gravestones and weathered wooden crosses within the sagging fence. Mysteriously, there were graves on the western and eastern ends of the cemetery, but the center appeared to be empty. There were ten stones on the western end. Four of them had obviously Navajo names with the date 1929, four years after the army post became a school, no birth dates. I wondered if these were students. It was all too common that Native students died in residential schools of heartbrokenness, exposure when trying to escape or disease brought on by both. The other six stones were marked "Unknown," but the stones were marble, so clearly someone had cared to bury the bodies well.


The graves on the eastern end of the cemetery were indeed those of Mexican soldiers, including a general. But an article by Harold L. James, published by the New Mexico State Highway Commission, indicates that they were not Pancho Villa's soldiers but Federalist loyalists seeking asylum from Villa's forces with their families. The US decided to remove them from anyplace near the Mexican border, in case there were Villa's men hidden among them. They were detained (2,000-4,000 of them from varying reports) in a tent city south of the army post. The soldiers had plain cement headstones, but the general merited a rather ornate plinth that rose above all the other stones in the cemetery. They were held from 1914-1915, so they did not die in the 1918 epidemic. I didn't learn any causes of their deaths.


Further research explained the mystery of the empty center of the graveyard: most US soldiers' remains were removed to the Santa Fe National Cemetery. There were two white marble gravestones of US soldiers from the WWII era, one clearly Navajo, who died in 1944 and the other who died in 1948. One wooden cross was kept freshly painted white with black lettering: a Navajo man, born in 1909 and died in 1983. His was the most recent grave in the yard, someone who had died old, so not a student at the time of death. I wondered who had decided to bury him here and why.


The cemetery was very overgrown, the latest grave the only one to be somewhat cared for. I felt a soberness, a sadness at the unknown stories. The likely students and the asylum seekers no doubt went to their graves with sorrow in their hearts.


To see photos from the graveyard, go to the Facebook search space and enter "Anna Redsand cemetery."

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Ft. Wingate Company Barracks, built 1906

For the many-eth time, I passed the abandoned, old Ft. Wingate school, as I drove up to the Quaking Aspen Campground. I thought, This time I'm going to breach the fencing and go in and take pictures. The school was on the site of a fort originally named Ft. Fauntleroy, and it was where, in 1846, the Bear Springs (Shashbitó in the Diné language) Treaty was signed by Narbona and other Diné chiefs and Colonel Alexander Doniphan. In 1918, an ordnance depot for high explosives being returned from Europe after WWI was constructed two miles west of Fort Wingate. In 1925, the entire post moved to that location, and the original fort was turned into a vocational high school for Navajo students. That was the place I went to visit earlier this week. It's also a place with which I have some personal history. It turns out the location has been abandoned to a caretaker more than once: from 1910-14, from 1915-1918, and most recently in 2010. I did run into a caretaker as I was leaving the way I came in, where chain link fencing had been torn open by others. I waved to him, and he waved back, seemingly unconcerned by my presence.


I walked around the overgrown grounds snapping photos, mainly of stone institutional buildings, including the well known barracks of 1906, as well as an agricultural building with silos, the Depression Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) era stone-and-viga elementary school that looks so much like the Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school I attended in Teec Nos Pos. It is a close cousin to schools built of dressed native stone all over the Navajo Nation.


I avoided taking pictures of the cinderblock classroom and dormitory buildings constructed in the 1950s and 60s and the long, metal warehouse-like ones because they have no aesthetic value. At least that's how I thought of my omission. On further reflection I realize that there may have been another, darker reason. One of those buildings, easily identified despite its boarded up windows and graffitied walls, holds my history with this place.


This is not a history I am proud of. In the process of colonizing indigenous peoples, governments have relied on the collaboration of religious entities. The old Ft. Wingate School was a US Government school (a new one still is). Missionaries across the breadth of Navajo Country had an agreement to provide religious instruction in the BIA schools one afternoon or evening a week and on Sundays. As the child of missionaries, when I was in high school, I was conscripted into the army of religious instructors. I went willingly every Tuesday evening to that cinderblock building at Ft. Wingate to tell Bible stories and sing gospel choruses with second grade girls.


Today I am vigorously opposed to proselytizing, which was part of my everyday life for so many years. I think if people are seeking a spiritual path and they see something in me that they're drawn to because of how I live my life, then great; I'm willing to share. Otherwise not. So I look back at my 15- and 16-year-old self, and I do the only thing I know to do: I forgive myself for not knowing better at the time. And I hope that if those little girls remember the time they spent with me at all, they remember me as kind and as a good storyteller.


To see more photos of the abandoned school, go to Facebook. Enter "Anna Redsand Ft Wingate" in the FB search space.

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