I’m a white kid that grew up on the reservation. The Navajo Reservation, in Arizona and New Mexico, specifically.
It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes, it was the exact opposite of easy.
Kids at school weren’t always welcoming. They liked to call me names. Biligaana was their favorite. I guess I get it. Biligaana is the Navajo word for white and I was definitely white. Like totally. Even my hair.
I’m sure to the girls in my class I made as little sense to them as they did to me. They had long dark thick braids of shiny hair that I was enraptured with. I remember holding up my fingers to measure the girl’s who sat in front of me. It was three fingers wide. Mine was barely one. They would come to school sometimes in their native dress. Beautiful deep colors and rich satins. I didn’t have a native dress. Unless cutoffs and Kool-aid t-shirts count.
My dad was a teacher at our school. My mom was a mom. There were five kids in our family and we weren’t exactly upwardly mobile. My brothers kept their beds in the closet. I can seriously remember the day big boxes of clothes were delivered to our classroom for all the Navajo kids. I went home that day crying and told my mom life wasn’t fair. I wanted brand new jeans and plaid shirts. I wanted white tennis shoes and socks that matched. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be included.
My mom didn’t nurture my drama. In fact, I’m pretty sure she rolled her eyes. The speech probably went something like this. “These kids are going to face hard times you’ll never know young lady. Dry it up and get over it.” I got that a lot from my mom. The get over it speech. Funny thing was, she was usually right.
As the years passed on the reservation, I got to share in a lot of the joys of being raised in that beautiful, lonesome place.
There were long walks to the trading post with a quarter in our pockets. Cherry Mash you will always be my first choice. There were afternoons watching quiet ladies make fry bread in clearings. There were horny toads under cattle guards begging to be caught and there was always the feeling that something unexplained was in every sunset and every sunrise. The reservation was a magic place with a great sadness around every corner.
I remember a summer we stopped sitting out on our porch at night because our parents didn’t want us to hear the young man across the street get drunk and destroy his grandmother’s home. I remember the kids, whose parents didn’t show up to get them on a Friday afternoon, huddled on cement steps waiting for my Dad to make the seventy mile trip on dirt roads to get them home to their families. I remember knowing if a knock came in the middle of the night it was probably someone who had drank too much and needed a ride somewhere. Sometimes another seventy miles down another dirt road.
The reservation wasn’t perfect, but somewhere along the way we started to belong. The Navajo people took care of us. They made gifts for us. They loved us. I might not have had a three-finger braid or a silk skirt but I was theirs and, in return, they were mine. To this day, there is a piece of my heart there. The reservation taught me some of the best lessons I know about people. The main one being; learn to see people’s heart and not their race. If you can do this, you might find family you didn’t start with, but that you were always meant to have.
This week something horrible happened on the reservation. A precious little girl was taken and murdered. The story of Ashlynne Mike has shattered my heart. I feel like I know her even though we never met. She could have been my best friend Charlene Begay who befriended me when no one else did. I might have gone with her and her family up into the mountains to camp and check on the flocks. Her mom might have made my mom a turquoise ring as a sign of friendship. We might have spent hours playing in the wash and climbing on butane tanks. Her family would have showed up to my dad’s funeral and given us soft hand shakes and gentle smiles to help us through our grief.
Even though I never met Ashlynne Mike, she is family. She is mine. This Biligaana will grieve her and pray for her loved ones and all who still live there. I am, humbly and thankfully, from out on the reservation and I know the toll this tragedy will take on my Navajo family and their gentle spirits.