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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


The circled building is the former White missionary kids' dorm.


In a post last week, "Defining Events ," I mentioned that I was the first White student to integrate the dorms at Rehoboth Mission, not without controversy. This excerpt from "In and Out," published in Istmus in 2016, briefly tells the story of the controversy and some of its consequences. The full essay can be read at https://www.annaredsand.com/in_and_out_133016.htm and will hopefully be republished in a collection of related essays.


I became the first student to racially integrate a dormitory at Rehoboth. Despite the continued bullying by those Bilagáana (White) boys, it would be the happiest year of my time at the mission school. It was also the year that I became deeply, consciously aware of White privilege and racism there. Not long after the school year began, Bilagáana missionaries in the field got wind of the fact that I was staying in the dorm. They were miffed because as members of the General Conference, they had had no input into this decision. That was when I finally learned the ostensible rationale for the existence of the racially separate dorms. It was so White children wouldn't be taking the places meant for Native children who needed to be saved. I wondered yet again why the Diné missionary kids hadn't stayed in the Missionary Kids' Dorm. I still didn't have the word "racism" in my vocabulary, but I recognized it for sure.

In 1963, the Red Power Movement was rumbling awake. In six more years, Vine Deloria, Jr. a Standing Rock Sioux, would publish Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. But already in 1964, he had become executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, growing its membership from nineteen to 156 tribes. This nascent movement for Native rights had already influenced some of the more vocal Diné missionaries.

The controversy about integrating the dorm was placed on the agenda at General Conference, and I knew I might be sent back to stay at home. However, in the end, those vocal Navajo missionaries won the day, along with some of the White missionaries, including my father. They argued that integrating the dorms was a symbolic gesture of equality, one that could bring more converts into the fold. It was a wise argument, couched as it was in the rhetoric of saving more souls. I was allowed to stay.

Near the end of the year, something happened to validate the Bilagáana missionaries' worst fears. Kee Bitsoi and I were both working on the laundry detail by then and, although he was a class behind me, we were in band and choir together. He asked me to go to church with him one Sunday evening. That might not sound like anything that could possibly threaten anyone, but at the mission it amounted to a very public date. It was like a declaration, and many couples who went to church together on Sunday evenings ended up marrying each other.

I heard audible gasps when we walked down the aisle to our pew, but that was nothing compared to what happened afterwards. The high school dorm had a boys' side and a girls' side with a common living room between. We had two house-parents, Mr. and Mrs. Haverdink. Mister had a nickname—Yogi—because his long torso, and the way he waddled made him look like the cartoon character Yogi Bear. Mrs. Haverdink was so uninvolved on a day-to-day basis that she didn't merit a nickname.

Yogi walked up to Kee and me after the service with fury that had been building during the whole service. Scarlet faced, he pushed us apart and said, "You go this way," to me, "and you come with me," to Kee. As he walked away with Kee, I heard him shout, "I thought you were a nice boy until now."

I was shaking when I got back to the dorm, not in righteous anger, which would have been fitting, but in fear. Yogi had already sent Kee to his room. "Do you want to marry a White boy or don't you?" he shouted at me, so everyone in the living room could hear. To my everlasting shame, I said nothing. I didn't need to because Yogi kept ranting for another five minutes, but I wished I had shouted, "No!" He sent me to my room and told me I was grounded for a week, which basically meant I couldn't go to study hall in the high school library at night. It turned out that Kee had been grounded for the next month, and I was again plunged into shame over the unfairness of it.

Nothing ever came of the incident, except that a week later the principal called me into his office. The only words I remember exactly were, "I guess there's been a storm in the teapot over there." Then he said something to the effect that I should ride it out and maybe not do anything like that again. I nodded miserably and kept my true thoughts and feelings to myself.

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A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting about story quilts, and one of the topics was Hmong story quilts, made by immigrants from Laos who were uprooted by the Vietnam War. The presenter, in her twenties, asked anyone knew of the Vietnam War, and I laughed out loud. Later I apologized, and we talked about how every generation experiences its own defining events. She said for her it was 911. In my parents' generation it was the the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In my generation, the Vietnam War was certainly big, but it was something that went on for so long, that you don't usually hear people ask, "Where were you during the Vietnam War?" I'd say, for my generation it's the day Kennedy was shot.
As I write this, it is the 60th anniversary of that day. I might not have remembered it, except that my youngest brother turned 60 yesterday, and his birth has been tied to that event often enough that in a family text thread he said yesterday, "Oh yes, my claim to fame." This morning, when I recalled that today is the actual day, I reflected on the many memories I have of that day and the few days that followed, and I thought I'd share them with you.
I was a junior at the Rehoboth Mission High School, living in the dorm, the first White student to integrate the dorms, not without controversy. Grades 1-12 still ate family- style dinners at noon in the Mission House then, and we'd just begun passing food around when Mr. Hoekstra, the head cook, interrupted us to tell us that the president had just been shot in Dallas. "He's in surgery now," he added. "Let's take a moment to pray for him and the surgeons." Everything stopped, and we bowed our heads for the second prayer of the meal. I remember feeling stunned, and our conversations were subdued for the rest of dinner. Before the meal was over, Mr. Hoekstra, who had been listening to the radio in the kitchen, told us the president had died, and after the meal, he prayed for our country and for Kennedy's family.
That evening we were scheduled to give a band concert, and we had band practice right after lunch. Mr. Dobbs told us there'd been some discussion about canceling the concert, but they'd decided to go ahead and to offer it as a memorial. It was especially fitting, as one of our numbers happened to be the "Navy Hymn." Before we played it that night, Mr. Dobbs dedicated the hymn to the memory of the president, who had been a lieutenant in the navy during WWII. It's such a solemn, moving piece of music with great low brass parts (I played trombone), and I know I felt the gravitas of the situation, playing with a lump in my throat.
That afternoon, I'd walked to the hospital and stood outside my mother's room, so she could lift my seventh brother to the window for me to greet him. We talked about the president's death. Most people at the mission were, unsurprisingly, Republican, while Kennedy, of course was a Democrat. He was also a Catholic, another strike against him at this conservative, Protestant mission. Some, despite that, were truly grieved, regardless of their political beliefs. They hurt with the rest of the country at this violent death. Not my mother, though. She expressed voluble annoyance about one of the nurses who had wept about the loss and the impact on us as a nation. I remember being impressed that Mr. Hoekstra, on the other hand, had felt compelled to pray as he did.
Over the next few days, we high school students who lived in the dorm sat on couches, the floor and steps in the darkened living room to watch the events taking place on the dorm parents' black-and-white TV. We repeatedly watched scenes of the Kennedys leaving the plane at Love Field, the motorcade, the shooting, LBJ taking the presidential oath with Jackie Kennedy at his side on the plane. We watched reruns of significant moments in JFK's life and presidency––him sitting in the rocker speaking to us from the Oval Office, the Cuban Missile Crisis, playing family football in Hyannis Port. And we were released from classes to watch the funeral parade.
Those were an emotional few days, and then life went on––algebra tests, reading Walt Whitman in American Literature, work detail in the school laundry. Yet people of my generation can still be heard to ask each other, "Where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been shot?" And then we have a story to tell, not only about where we were, but how we felt, personal events of those days, like a new baby in the family. It's a moment of connection, of bonding with others who had that same, overwhelming experience.
What do you consider to be the defining event(s) of your generation? If it was the Kennedy assassination, where were you when you heard?

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Winter Solstice Sunrise, Chaco Canyon, A. Redsand

A few years ago, just before Thanksgiving, I heard a Diné man say that he was bewildered by the fact that in America we devote a single day to Thanksgiving. He said, "In our tradition, every day is a day for giving thanks." In 12-Step programs people who are feeling depressed about getting clean and sober are often advised to make a list of things they are grateful for. It's called having an "attitude of gratitude," and people are reminded that it is hard to be depressed while you're being grateful.
Around the time I heard that Diné man speaking in a radio interview, I started a daily practice posting three things that I was grateful for on Facebook (I was still on FB then). I hoped that it might catch on and go viral. I thought if it did, it could help to change the world. I do believe that if millions of us are being grateful and sharing our gratitude with others, the world will be transformed. It is not only difficult to be depressed when you're being grateful; it is also difficult to be mean or angry or violent. Think how the world would change, if gratitude helped to keep us from harming ourselves and others.
Many years ago, I read the story of an adopted child who had been severely abused and neglected. He had been left for days in a cellar with only bread and water to eat and drink. Rats were his only companions. Despite the loving care he received in his adoptive family, he remained understandably angry. He was mean to other children. The rest of the time he withdrew from everyone around him. His new mother gave him a calendar and asked him to write in each square one thing he was thankful for. For weeks he wrote nothing. Then one day, he wrote, "Teacher let me." His mother asked what that meant, and he said his teacher had let him pass out the milk in class. His recognition of that one positive event became a turning point for him. It wasn't that nothing positive had happened before, but on that day, he recognized it and was thankful. He began filling each date with something he appreciated, and his relationships with others began to change.
Practicing an attitude of gratitude and going one step further by sharing my gratitude with others had the effect of making me more aware throughout each day of the large and small things I was grateful for. Most of the time I found it was the simple things that I could otherwise easily have taken for granted—warm showers, a delicious breakfast, my truck that worked as soon as I turned the key, a beautiful sunrise, colors, laughter, naps, and rain. Other times it was something I might not be happy about at first—like several hours of insomnia. But I realized I could be honestly thankful for that because, in my tossing and turning, I got an important idea for the book I was writing at the time.
There were times, of course, when I didn't (and still don't) feel grateful for anything, but my a commitment to naming things I was grateful for pushed me to think of things I could be grateful for. In 12-Step programs, this is called "acting as if." Acting as if I am thankful, even when I don't feel thankful, can actually change how I'm feeling. At these times I often think of some of life's most basic gifts—that I'm alive, that my family is safe, that I have a house to live in.

When I was doing those daily posts, one of my friends told me that she'd been inspired by them. She said she'd seen a centipede on the porch, and she hates centipedes. "Then I thought of your posts," she said. "I realized that I can be thankful because centipedes eat insects, and also because this one was outdoors, not in the house." Some people did start practicing gratitude posting. Other friends, even ones I didn't know except online, were reading my posts, and might comment out of the blue, "I love these posts." I thought, "Oh good. I was privileged to give someone joy today, and they even told me about it."
An attitude of gratitude is a powerful agent for change. Sharing what I am grateful for can remind others of what they have to be thankful for—sometimes in a day or a week filled with problems. Mostly, being grateful changes me and how I look at life, even more than it changes others.
The fourteenth century German theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhart, wrote, "If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice." He and the Diné man who said, "Every day is a day for giving thanks," were onto something big.
This post appeared in the Gallup Independent a few years ago and has been updated in the hope that all of us in this season will be reminded that an attitude of gratitude is a powerful change agent every day, year-round.

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Recently the Museum of Danish America, where my daughter Cheyenne is the Archives Manager and Outreach Associate, received the donation of 41 original letters from Christian Peter Andersen, a Danish immigrant and Union sergeant in the 6th Volunteer Missouri Cavalry, to his immigrant sweetheart, Annie C. Jessen, (later married). Cheyenne was the one who accessioned the letters, and she knew I might be interested in translating them. Translation is like solving puzzles, in fact, it often literally requires puzzle solving. It also draws on my linguistics background and my skills as a writer. I love doing it, and it's also a lot of work. These letters are in Danish, in faded Gothic script, which is challenging for a first-language speaker of Danish to read, let alone for a second-language speaker like me. 


Enter Anders Bo Rasmussen, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Southern Demark (SDU) and author of Civil War Settlers: Scandinavians, Citizenship, and American Empire. Because the intersectionality of Scandinavian immigrants and the American Civil War is a specialty area for him, I thought he could be interested in what the letters might teach us about the Civil War and that period in history through the words of a specific soldier. I thought Anders and I might collaborate in a transcription/translation project, in which he would do the transcription and I would do the translation, as translation can best be done by a native speaker of the language into which the work is being translated. Anders and I met at a conference this summer and agreed that we would like to work together. 


We had already started by using this process with a sample letter, the first page of which appears above. It was important to know if these letters were simply romantic communication, or if they were of historical value. It was clear from the sample that, although there was certainly romance involved, coming from the battlefront, they contained a soldier's views on military engagements and also advice to his beloved about how the war could impact her personally. 


Because the translation would involve a tremendous amount of work, I decided to apply for a Bodtker Grant from the Danish American Heritage Society to pay for my work. Anders was on board with the project and would not need to be paid because he would be on salary at SDU and would not have teaching responsibilities next semester.


This morning, when I opened my laptop at 5 a.m., I was greeted by the news that I had received the requested grant! I'm grateful and excited. We will be starting work in January, and I look forward to keeping you updated from time to time. One requirement of the grant is that I write an article that can be published in the historical society's journal, The Bridge. Anders will also write an article. 


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