DINE: Navajo, People

–Maureen Connolly

Tsaile is cool at five thousand feet,
little snow, lots of space.

Weekdays I rise in the dark, watch the sun
bleed across the Lukachukai Mountains
out my kitchen window.
I see patients in the Indian Health Center:
pregnant women, diabetics, old women
in long skirts and velvet blouses, infants
brought in on cradleboards, injured men.

I learn how to speak some Navajo
how to listen to what is not said.
At the end of the day I walk outdoors
to where I sleep in the compound
near the dwellings of the other doctor
and the nurses. On the other side
of my little house, the sun bleeds
purple and orange over a pearled sky.

Once a week, I drive a winding road
into the dust and mud of Chinle
to a tiny emergency room bulging
with people. This winter babies
on the reservation are having trouble
breathing. There aren’t enough beds.

Friday nights at the trading post,
I look at axes in a barrel, consider
popcorn versus pretzels, pick up
a free copy of the Navajo Times.
Weekends I hike the canyons.

In Window Rock I go to a rodeo
for the first time, sit on rough
planks in the stands, a white
woman alone among the Navajo.
Mothers put fry bread in toddler
mouths. Prepubescent girls eye
cowboys walking to the chutes
spurs glinting on their boots.
Boys enter on bucking calves
then grown men clinging to huge steers.

Clowns open gates, tempt belligerent
animals away from fallen riders,
know that elusive thing, when
to step out of the line of danger.
I leave early, fearful of livestock
or a drunken driver wandering
into my headlights on the dark
journey through the mountains.

I attend mass in a hogan-shaped
church, its curved inside walls shared
by St. Francis and the corn goddess.
Statues of a medicine woman and man
stand alongside the Nativity crèche.
I discover the Irish and Navajo have
nearly the same word for “people.”

The night before I am to go home
it snows for hours into the quiet.
By morning the mountain passes
near Tsaile are closed. I head my
rented sedan the opposite direction
from the airport in Albuquerque
in hopes of circling back.

In Navajo country a milk-blue sky
blurs into rich cream land,
rust-red canyons claimed
by the snow. A brindled horse,
breath foggy in the air, stands still,
ears erect, against the horizon.
The landscape, impossibly, expands.

Two jeeps appear, one before
me, one behind, angel me
a hundred miles, no other
vehicles in sight, past scattered
Navajo villages, above the timberline,
over a mountain. I slide
onto the interstate, the jeeps are gone.

Near Gallup I stop at a convenience
store, dizzied by its repleteness.
Albuquerque can only be entered
from the west, they say, the snow.
I am coming from the west. I aim
for Albuquerque, home, my lover.

Then the airport and a plane that will fly.
More people, things, speed, sound.
A prayer forms itself.
I continue to move in and out of danger.

Dr. Connolly describes her time working on the Navajo reservation. She is aware of her foreignness, her otherness, in that setting, a different culture, with strange traditions; she describes her awareness of being different. At times she senses danger due to her unfamiliarity with the setting, but she has some resolution.

Today in many rural settings the provider may be from an ethnic group or race different from his/her patients. In some settings, international medical graduates, who were raised and educated outside the US, provide care to patients quite different from themselves. In other communities immigrants from outside the US have settled, drawn by connections with a church or seeking employment opportunities. Some communities and medical settings do a good job of integrating cultures different from the people who settled there over a century ago. Local businesses welcome the immigrants; schools have special programming for immigrant students; clinics and hospitals hire translators and immigrants as support staff, place signage in other languages. In other communities there may be tensions between the different races and cultures.

If you are in a setting where a variety of cultures are learning to live and work together, notice how they have or have not negotiated their differences. Has the majority culture welcomed the minority? What more could be done?


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