Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. ~ The Talmud
When we were children, our mother sometimes cooked up a pot of split pea soup for lunch. She flavored it with onions and ham hocks. The ham hocks not only tasted good with their pink saltiness, the sweetness of the fat, and the chewy, dimpled skin, they were packed with tiny squarish bones, which we cleaned with devotion until they shone slippery blue-white. It surprises me now, but our mother let us play with them, stacking them and lining them up on the table like houses along a street. In an unspoken understanding of the symbolism, we called the assemblage Jerome, the name of a ghost town we had visited in Arizona. Near the end of high school, in the mid-nineteen sixties, I would think of those rows of bones as a diorama of Rehoboth Mission, the hub of our church’s many smaller missions in the Navajo Nation. It was the place where I spent most of my school years, sometimes as a boarding student, sometimes as a day student, always as the child of white missionaries. I envisioned a single knucklebone representing each house on the mission compound, a stack of bones as the institutional buildings—the hospital, the schools, the church. I had by then grown deeply critical of things I witnessed there, and I mentally connected the rows of knucklebones to Jesus’ words: “Woe to you, teachers of the law …, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” That’s how I felt about Rehoboth by the end of my schooling. The intensity of those feelings only grew as I moved into adulthood.
More than fifty years after I graduated, I have lived oceans away from the mission, and yet, the mission is always with me. It continues to frequent my night dreams. In them, I usually find myself in the high school, always in the hallway. It is dark there, the walls lined with military green lockers. Sometimes I am missing essential clothing, sometimes trying to get to class, never making it. Other times I have no pencils, and that is of vital and frightening importance. Each time, the dream ends when at last I remember that I succeeded in graduating from high school long ago.
The majority of dream researchers and theorists agree that recurrent dreams call attention to unresolved problems in the life of the dreamer and that a powerful dream image may provide a context for an unsettling emotion or conflict. Whenever I return to the mission in real life, whether for a nephew’s graduation party or a wedding or a funeral, I feel those unfinished conflicts in my stomach—the ones symbolized by that long, dark hallway. I relive memories of times long past. I think of my Navajo friends and stories they have told and continue to tell about their years at the mission. I remember my own years there. The dream that returns to me over and over tells me that there is something I have left undone. Maybe it is something that I, more than half a century after apparently having finished with Rehoboth, am still obligated to do.
So many questions arise out of the brokenness that I was a part of, the main one being “What is my responsibility regarding this tear in the fabric of the world?” Because I grew up in the Navajo Nation, I was the recipient of a wealth of experiences uncommon to most white people. I ask myself if I owe more than others because of this. “Have these experiences equipped me in a way that also obligates me?” And, “Just how do I extend myself in a way that is truly helpful and meaningful without appropriating a task that might not belong to me?” I have been afraid to reach out in a hand of reconciliation—afraid of doing it wrong, afraid of having any overture rejected, especially by people I care for. Afraid I will be misunderstood.
Fania Davis Jordan is a civil rights attorney and executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. She also happens to be the sister of Angela Davis. The murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent decisions not to indict the police officers that killed them served as the immediate impetus for her July 2016 article in Yes Magazine, “This Country Needs a Truth and Reconciliation Process on Violence Against African Americans—Right Now.” I know I am not alone in finding the thought of a national truth and reconciliation process overwhelming, although I believe it is absolutely needed. I can’t help asking myself if my nighttime journeys to those darkened Rehoboth hallways continue to plague me because my share in the history of the mission constrains me in a particular way to be part of a reconciliation process within the Navajo Nation.
Rehoboth Mission got its start in 1903. My high school history teacher, a white former missionary kid like me, told us that the land for the mission was obtained through the Homestead Act. He said that two Dutch women, Miss Russbach and Miss Hartog, staked the claim. I imagined stern, intrepid women in long black dresses urging a team of horses from the seat of their buckboard wagon, dust swirling around them, leaping down to pound wooden stakes into the red earth. Since then I’ve heard less colorful stories about the mission’s inception. I don’t know which story is true, but I know the one I prefer, if the mission had to exist at all. What I do know is that the mission caused great losses and damage to many Navajo and Zuni children and their families, and also to white children like me.
I date the beginning of my awareness of the injustices among whites and Native people earlier than my time at Rehoboth. It goes back to 1952, the year that I turned four. It was shortly after my father received his assignment as a missionary in Shiprock, New Mexico. At that time, Shiprock was a tiny village in the northern section of the Navajo Nation, an emblem of colonization, since nothing had existed there before the US Government established it as one of its administrative locations. Our church’s mission board provided us with a large two-story house in Shiprock. It stood on a hill, and from our living room, a large picture window looked down across a road onto the activity surrounding Jack’s Trading Post. Standing at the window was like watching a movie, although I had never seen a movie at the time, so I would not have drawn that comparison then.
Navajo people drove up to Jack’s from miles around in horse-drawn wagons to unload bags of wool and piñon nuts, carefully folded rugs, silver and turquoise jewelry wrapped in flour sacking. They walked into the trading post with these and came out with bags of Bluebird flour slung over shoulders, cans of Folgers coffee, loops of rope, enamel basins, bags of sugar. After loading these into their wagons, some stood against the trading post walls or in the shade of gnarled cottonwoods exchanging news while their horses nosed into feedbags.
Sometimes visitors came to us from God’s great Midwest. My parents treated them with deference because they supported the mission with money and prayers. During one of these visits, I was playing on the floor in the living room, and the visitors stood at the picture window, watching the scene below them. One of them said, “Just look at those Indians down there.”
I said without hesitation and a knife in my voice, “They’re not Indians. They’re nice Navajos.” I’m sure I knew that Diné (Navajos’ name for themselves) could be called Indians; I objected to the tone I heard. I didn’t know the word racism, but I didn’t need to know it. I knew what I heard, and I didn’t have to think at all about how I felt. I recognized the sound of injustice. I knew it was up to me to correct it.
No doubt my parents were embarrassed and scolded me for disrespecting adults. I hope the Midwesterners were discomfited by a child’s righteous indignation. I wasn’t punished, but I would have felt hurt because my mother and father misunderstood my intent.
My first playmates on the hill, Rudy and Bobby Yellowhair, lived in a white canvas tent close by our imposing, gray and brown house. They lived there year-round with their mother Iva. In Shiprock, temperatures before climate change ranged on average from fifteen degrees Fahrenheit in winter to ninety-four degrees in summer. Someone had tried to make the tent withstand the weather better by nailing discarded slabs of wood ammunition boxes around its walls. In winter the tent was heated by a woodstove whose smoke pipe snaked up through a hole in the tent roof.
When it snowed, I worried about my friends. “Aren’t they cold?” I asked. Quite possibly my parents offered Iva mittens and sweaters and caps with earflaps from the mission barrel. But I knew that tent couldn’t be as warm as our house with its lovely radiant wall heaters. I didn’t know the word privilege, but I knew there was an imbalance. I knew something was wrong, and I felt helpless about it.
When our class moved up to fifth grade at the mission school, a boy who had already done fifth grade joined us. Even the second time around, that grade was a struggle for Tom. And all the grades after that until our senior year, which was when Tom finally blossomed. We all got to see then how smart he really was. That was the year in which he at last mastered English, and everything else fell into place. That was the year I truly understood what it meant to come to school speaking no English, punished for speaking the only language you had. I wondered how my classmates had functioned at all. Later I understood that they had received no special instruction in the learning of a second language. This was not language teaching through a carefully sequenced immersion strategy; it was sink or swim at the level of native speakers.
When our teachers at the mission school assigned written work in high school, some of my friends asked me to edit theirs. I was glad to do it, but sometimes I worried that the teachers would think we were cheating. Later I learned the word paternalism, and at that point, I wondered if being a helper had been paternalistic. I wanted things to be equal, and maybe they were. The friend who most often asked me to edit her work had been a playmate when we were kids. She was the one who gave me my first Navajo cake from a girl’s kinaalda, her puberty ceremony, sharing with me a bit of the culture in which I was learning to live. We had ridden bikes together around the sheep dip and had sleepovers in each other’s homes. Maybe it’s not possible to measure equality in a friendship because the exchanges are both different and the same.
All these things I saw and heard and lived with, and more and more I knew that something was wrong. I didn’t have the words racism, privilege, paternalism, but I knew the reality from deep within, and I knew something needed to change. I just didn’t know what or how or if it was up to me to do anything. Still in high school, I had arguments with my father about some of these things for which I had no words. I thought, especially after seeing how Tom and some of my other friends transformed along the way, that education was the answer, an equalizer. Education and love. It all came down to love, I thought. I said this one Sunday afternoon, and my father said, “Ach! You talk too much about love!”
I shot back, “How can I talk too much about love when the Bible says that God is love?” I stalked off on the high heels of Sunday, no love for my father in that moment.
In a recent interview with Terry Gross, David Oyelowo, a British actor of Nigerian descent, said of African Americans, if “your history is rooted in slavery, that really, I think, messes with your sense of self….” The same case might be made for the emotional impact of conquest and colonization on Native peoples—that the less tangible effects on a sense of self are passed on from historical times to the present.
Recent studies confirm Oyelowo’s intuitive understanding. They show that trauma is carried from generation to generation on the double helix of DNA. So the soul-crushing trauma suffered by the ancestors of my indigenous friends lives on in them. Some of my friends have told me stories about things that happened to grandparents and great grandparents—The Long Walk of 1864 and the return in 1868, lost land, lost language. The list goes on. What happened at Rehoboth in the early 20th century is experienced not only through stories passed down, but those events are also borne on the genes.
Indignities continue today. Indigenous students are routinely forbidden to adorn graduation caps with beadwork or feathers. Male students with long braids have been suspended pending haircuts. The Washington Redskins and their fans refuse to drop their racist name. A national news anchor announces the patent ridiculousness that Natives are illegal aliens. In some states, public school curricula teach that Native people are gone from the surface of the Earth, that they are people of the past.
On the bright side, genetic research also suggests that resilience rides on the genes from the fathers and mothers to the children and grandchildren. Attend a powwow, and you will see ample evidence of a vibrant, thriving indigenous culture. I have friends who are master weavers of traditional rugs and sashes as well as users of new fiber art techniques combined with ancient methods and themes. I know painters who bring together current and past subjects with bold new styles and methods. Former colleagues work with intense love and creativity to keep the Diné language alive in the minds and mouths of Navajo youth.
Despite the resilience, I am overcome by the deep knowledge that something is wrong, and it is not about Natives. Nor is it about non-Natives, rightfully called by some Natives illegal immigrants. It is about relationship. It is about brokenness. It is about a once bright potential for living in harmony that has been smashed by genocide, both cultural and actual.
The year 2003 saw the 100th anniversary of the mission at Rehoboth. Missionaries among indigenous people are infamous for working hand-in-glove with governments to “pacify” or “civilize” indigenous people. After “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” came the phrase, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” And that was where missionaries came into the picture. I knew that Rehoboth’s centennial celebration would include recognition of the damage the missionaries had caused to Navajo and Zuni people, as well as an apology.
In righteous anger about incalculable damage, passed on to generations of those 1903 and subsequent Rehoboth students, I refused to attend the celebration. I believed that the apology would constitute a sort of whitewash (pun intended), a theater piece enacted so that the mission could go on doing what it had done before, only more humanely now and with a lightened conscience. Admittedly the school had changed markedly for the better since my friends and I were students. Instead of punishing students for speaking their mother tongue, being part of the elimination of the language, the school now taught Diné language classes, thus becoming part of the general language revitalization effort. The mission had built a communications center honoring the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. But to me this seemed to be too little too late. A Diné friend and colleague of mine would not even go to the mission for her mother’s funeral in pain-filled protest. I saw my refusal to attend the celebration as an act of solidarity with her and others. And when I say that the mission intended to go on doing what it had been doing, I mean that it would continue proselytizing for Christianity—something I object to strongly.
My seven brothers did attend the celebration, including the reconciliation service, though reconciliation is really a misnomer. Conciliation would be a more accurate word, since reconciliation implies that there was once harmony that needs only to be restored between whites and Natives, when in fact such harmony never existed. During the ceremony Rehoboth’s executive director, a Navajo church leader, and the director of the denomination’s mission board offered public admissions of guilt accompanied by apologies. They called their formal words “A Message of Confession and Reconciliation.” Then there was time for responses from former students and parents. I heard about it all from my brothers.
One of them told me about a Navajo woman I’d known since fourth grade. Carol was a year ahead of me in school. My brother said, “She got up and started crying. She said, ‘I didn’t think this day would ever come.’”
I felt some shame. Maybe I had been wrong. Perhaps the apology was more sincere than I had imagined. Or maybe the degree of sincerity had mattered less than the fact that an attempt at conciliation had been made at all, the recognition that an apology was needed. I have often said in situations that are far less grave—for example, when a retail worker apologizes to me, “Sorry goes a long ways with me.” Maybe it was like that.
It is only right that churches, perpetrators of some of the gravest transgressions upon people who were once truly sovereign in their own land, should be some of the first to attempt conciliation. These are good and necessary beginnings. But the need for conciliation extends far beyond apologies from religious groups. The most well-known and largest government-sponsored truth and reconciliation process occurred in South Africa following the end of Apartheid. The people who conducted and participated in the truth and reconciliation process often did feel overwhelmed. One way that they dealt with the enormity of the task was to set limits—limits as to who would testify in public hearings and what forms reparations might take. Often reparation was a token or it was creatively applied to a group. The process was not without its flaws and critics, but as Desmond Tutu, the head of the commission, has reiterated, it allowed South Africa to make a transition to majority rule without the bloodshed that has occurred in so many other places following similar changes.
Fania Davis Jordan, in her Yes Magazine article, cites a few government-sponsored truth and reconciliation processes that have occurred in North America. The first to happen in the US was the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in North Carolina, held in 2004 and focusing on actions by the Ku Klux Klan in 1979. Maine has an ongoing truth commission initiated by the state’s governor and indigenous leaders to address the forced assimilation of Native children in the state’s welfare system. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, only recently completed, has undertaken a much larger effort regarding the abuses of First Nations people (as indigenous people are called in Canada) in residential schools. Even though the Canadian commission addressed a nationwide injustice, it had a limited focus—that of boarding school wrongs. Other commissions named by Jordan also limited their scope, and that may be the best way to begin a process of conciliation. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Unless we learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] we will die together as fools.”
It was social media that put me back in touch with many of the Diné friends with whom I’d lost contact. It was also social media that made me intensely aware of the level of pain and anger most of them are still living with. In addition, I see the strength, the ability to bounce back (or forward), the commitment to a healthful lifeway, the willingness to engage with joy and humor.
It was also social media that confronted me daily with the ongoing insults and long-lived wounds that my friends experienced. Every single time I read of them, I think, “Something has to change. We can’t just go on like this, in this discord, this rupture between Natives and the rest of us—discord that most of the rest of us aren’t even aware exists. That’s got to be the first step—awareness.”
The powerful sense that something must change motivated me to study truth and reconciliation processes that others—churches, governments, and individuals—have undertaken. In 2009, President Obama signed into law an official apology to Native people. In the words of the bill’s sponsor, then Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), the purpose of the Native American Apology Resolution was “to officially apologize for the past ill-conceived policies by the US Government toward the Native Peoples of this land and re-affirm our commitment toward healing our nation’s wounds and working toward establishing better relationships rooted in reconciliation.” It is always important to recognize beginnings, however small, in a healing process. However, such apologies do not go nearly far enough.
The healing model that seems most common is quite simple. It begins by giving those who have been wounded and also their descendants the opportunity to tell their stories, to tell what happened to them and their ancestors. Then the actual perpetrators or the representatives of the perpetrators acknowledge the offenses, take responsibility and offer their sorrow for what happened. Direct perpetrators must then change their behavior, and when institutions and governments are involved, reparations are necessary along with the changes. Reparations are most often thought of as monetary, but, as in South Africa, other types of restitution may be more meaningful and practical.
Before I grasped this paradigm, I was always at a loss for words when my friends posted images and words in social media about horrible injustices and insults, past and present. I felt that anything I could say would be of little value, so I said nothing. Finally, finding a guide for conciliation showed me how to respond, how I must respond at every opportunity, whether face-to-face or in writing.
My first chance came when a former colleague posted a photographic triptych on Facebook. The top two were sepia-tone boarding school photos. On the left were Native children with long hair wearing a blend of traditional and Anglo dress, looking angry. On the right they had shorn hair (boys) or hair pulled back in neat, tight buns (girls) and wore uniforms; they looked subdued, “pacified,” as they used to say. Below these two was a color photo of whites at a sporting event, decked out in feathered headdresses and face paint. The text read, “WERE THEY FORCED TO GIVE UP THEIR CULTURE SO YOU COULD DO THIS?”
I commented on my friend’s post, “Thank you for posting this. I want you to know that I am deeply sorry for the damage that my people did and continue to do to your people. Deeply. We need conciliation.”
My friend replied almost immediately, “Thank you, Anna.” She added a heart emoticon, and I started to cry, really cry. Hard. Clearly, when there is a societal wound, we are all wounded and in need of healing.
My next opportunity to extend myself in a gesture of conciliation also took place online. A friend had posted the following quote by the late South African singer and civil rights activist, Miriam Makeba:
The conqueror writes history; they came, they conquered, they write. You don’t expect people who came to invade us to write the truth about us. They will always write negative things about us and they have to do that because they have to justify their invasion in all countries.
Thank you for posting this. I love Miriam Makeba and her music, too. More important here and now, thank you for posting her words about colonists and revisionist history to justify the invasion and occupation. I am deeply sorry for the pain and damage my people caused and continue to cause to your people. I hope for and want to work toward conciliation.
I had been more hesitant when I wrote this comment, less sure of the response I might get because I have sensed more anger from Jennie, whom I’d known in our mission boarding school days, than from my former colleague. Sometimes I had felt that the anger might be directed at me, although it is often hard to know for sure about emotions when the communication is online rather than in person.
A few hours after I posted my response, my friend “liked” my reply. Several hours later she wrote, “Anna, thank you for being an ally.”
I happen to be a member of a sexual minority, and I know from a deep place how essential it is to have allies in my life and in the lives of my tribe. Once again, I was moved to tears. Jennie’s response was confirmation that I could begin where I was and take advantage of every chance I had. It has to start somewhere. I was saying, “I hear your pain. I want to respond. I want to be part of a healing process. I don’t know how it will look, but I want to do it.” I know that each time I will be improvising, relying upon the experience of those who entered this process before me. Every time I responded to a friend’s pain at having been injured by my people, I learned something new about the process. Jennie’s two-step response, several hours apart taught me that it can take time for someone to absorb and respond to a reconciling effort.
A few weeks later Alice Whitegoat, a close friend, and I went for a walk in a Russian olive and cottonwood forest. Scattered among the trees lay small meadows, thick with foxtails and Queen Anne’s lace. At one point we sat on a bench beside the path, and in the course of our conversation I asked her about her parents’ decision not to speak the Diné language with her when she was growing up. I wasn’t surprised to learn that a doctor at Rehoboth had given them advice that became the deciding factor.
We started walking again, and I took a deep breath after a short internal debate. “Alice, I’ve never said this to you before, but I am deeply sorry for the damage that my people have caused your people.” We were walking side-by-side, but we paused and faced each other, and my mouth and voice started trembling. I felt tears coming. I didn’t want that, didn’t want to make Alice uncomfortable in any way, and I knew that my visible emotion could do that.
Alice seemed taken aback and made excuses for me. “It’s not your responsibility. You were just a child.” I think she meant that as a child, I had had no more power in my situation than any of my Navajo friends had had in theirs.
I knew there was an answer regarding my responsibility, but I couldn’t think of how to say it, except for the Bible verse about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children for generations to come. I didn’t want to use that, in part because of our mutual mission school background, so I kept silent and the moment passed.
Of course what I needed to say came to me after we had left the forest and parted ways. It was this: “We’re all in this together. Whether it’s something we’ve inherited from way back, whether we are dealing it out or receiving it now. We’re all in it. We’re all affected by it. So we’re all responsible for doing the healing work. All of us.” We are not only all responsible; we are all in need of it. Desmond and Mpho Tutu point out in The Book of Forgiving, “To walk the path of forgiveness is to recognize that your crimes harm you as they harm me. To walk the path of forgiveness is to recognize that my dignity is bound up in your dignity, and every wrongdoing hurts us all.”
Talking with Alice in person offered what may have been the most important learning experience in personal conciliation I’d had by then. From it, I drew the conclusion that a face-to-face engagement probably requires some preparation. I could have seen this from Jennie’s online response, which gave her all the time she needed, and from the fact that her response came in stages. I think when I am physically with someone, we must have an agreement that we are mutually entering a process with the goal of making things better. An agreement implies a more formal process, not something I might say off the cuff, as I did with Alice. At the very least, we need to be seated, making direct contact. It didn’t help Alice that I got visibly and audibly emotional in that context, but if we had first agreed to talk about it, it might have been okay. As it was, I got the feeling that my attempt was just a source of embarrassment for her.
Another factor could be Alice’s age and the mellowing that has taken place in her and that I’ve witnessed over the years. I think she has come to terms with many personal injuries, that she has in many ways moved beyond them, taking her own route to get there.
I have attempted the beginnings of personal conciliation a few more times. One of those attempts gave me even more information, although I’m not sure how to use it yet. I followed the same steps of acknowledging the damage, apologizing, and making a commitment to conciliation after a friend posted a disturbing meme about Hitler having admired and been influenced by the mass extermination of indigenous people in the US. My friend did not reply to my comment. But two days later he thanked me publicly in social media for a gift that had been given several years earlier. I felt as though this was an indirect reply, and it has caused me to question the advisability of attempting online resolution to these gaping wounds. Improvisation most often involves trial and error.
The next question I ask myself is, “Where do I go from here, from these small, individual attempts?” As I told Jennie, I want to work for conciliation. I am convinced that individual efforts are needed, but they are not enough. On the other hand, the thought of trying to have an effect on the bigger picture is daunting. I keep reminding myself that others are already doing this work and that I don’t have to do it alone. I’ve asked myself if I might join an existing group or find others who would want to engage in the work with me. I have also wondered if writing about conciliation—to make others aware of the need—might fulfill my obligation. It seems too little.
In addition to the question about responsibility, I have felt compelled to ask if I have a right to assert the need for conciliation. Should the impetus be coming from Native people, not from me? African American Ava DuVernay wrote, “I’m interested in having people of color at the center of their own lives. We don’t need to be saved by anyone. We do not need to have anyone sweeping in on a white horse or someone saving the day or assisting us in our own narrative.”
“No,” I reply mentally. “That is certainly not what is needed. Conciliation has to be an act of mutuality, of complementarity—healing for people on all sides. Otherwise, it will fail.” I hasten to add that I only saw that short snippet from DuVernay, and I may well be applying it out of her intended context, but her words fueled my thoughts about what might be an appropriate role for me in a conciliation process.
I brought up the idea of a Truth and Conciliation Commission with Alice Whitegoat. “Do you think the motivation for a commission needs to come from a Native person? Do I have a right to work to make it happen?”
Without pausing, she said, “You have a right because you’re a human being.”
Right. Responsibility. Perhaps even joy. Kate Bornstein in Gender Outlaw writes, “Your life’s work begins where your great joy meets the world’s great hunger.” Maybe this is what engaging in truth and conciliation work will be for me. Great joy. Perhaps it is not an obligation; perhaps it will be an oblation offered in joy.
In August of 2014, I attended the First Annual Indigenous Fine Art Market in Santa Fe. The day was chilly, gray and rainy, but spirits were high. The art, from all over the US and Canada, was powerful and haunting in its blend of the traditional with the avant-garde. Entertainment reflected that blend—break dancing, traditional hoop dances, time-honored musical groups and contemporary ones that mixed it up with both humor and gravitas.
Certain paintings sliced deep, bringing tears and sometimes laughter. I enjoyed conversations with artists about their work. I met with friends, shared food and coffee, sauntered with them among the booths. What struck me most powerfully, what I kept coming back to, was how this market, this festival of art and engagement, could serve as a model for a new way of being with one another. Every imaginable color of human was present—red, brown, beige, mahogany, gold, coffee, pink, butterscotch, blue-black, cream, rose, copper—strolling, laughing, talking. I never once saw a moment of conflict while I sat on a low stone wall with my friends and watched humanity stream by—babies, crones bent with age, youth with dreadlocks, young men wearing the traditional Navajo bun, the bitsii’yeel. Clothing represented Africa, the Middle East, indigenous America, and including dramatic couture that combined ancient themes with contemporary invention. I saw people from every continent on Earth, every racial strand and mix, enjoying, appreciating, learning from one another. Joying in each other’s differences and commonality.
I thought, “This is how it could be. This is how we humans—the only race there is—how we need to be.” That day gave me a vision filled with sounds and stunning images—a vision for a new way of being with one another in the US, across colors, shapes, sizes, ideals. But it was only a dream, a dream I would even have to call sentimental, if I don’t find some way to be part of making it surpass meager happy thoughts of sisterhood and brotherhood.
Anna Redsand is a white, cis-gender lesbian, raised by fundamentalist missionaries in the Navajo Nation. Her most recent book is a memoir, To Drink from the Silver Cup. Her essays have appeared in literary journals; “Naturalization” was notable in Best American Essays 2014. She lives and writes on the road.
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