Rose M. Gishie
Ruth Foster, Instructor
Assignment: Write a reflection essay.
The Role of Culture in My Life
As a Native American child raised on the Navajo reservation, I was taken from my family at the age of six and told not to speak Navajo, the only language I had ever known. Along with many other children, I was forced onto a bus and taken from my parents and the surroundings I knew.
The people who took us were strangers, people we had never seen before, and we cried for days, not knowing when or if we would see our parents or siblings again. We ended up many miles from our home, in a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Unlike the homes we left, the boarding school had electricity and indoor plumbing. Heat came from real gas heaters instead of the wood stoves we used on the reservation, stoves we fueled with the wood we helped gather from the trees from near our homes. During the winter months at school, we were warm.
We lived in buildings called dormitories with beds next to one another. My cousin’s bed was next to mine, and that made us feel more secure. We were told we would live there for eight years, and though we adjusted to our new surroundings quickly, we struggled to learn English. We worried that we might never see our parents again.
We did see them, though, on Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. In May, school let out for summer vacation, but then, in August, we went back to the boarding school. The teachers were good to us, and helped us, but we longed to visit our homes. When we did go home, we didn’t want to go back to school. But then, when the bus came back to pick us up, we were happy to see our friends from school.
When it came time for high school, we attended a boarding school in Holbrook, much closer to our reservation homes. It, too, was an Indian Boarding School. There, I enjoyed studying Home Economics because it was so like weaving and sewing, both things my mother had taught me. After I graduated, I took advantage of an opportunity to go to the San Francisco School of Fashion Design, an opportunity provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And so the boarding school experience was good for me. I had learned to speak English fairly well, and I was becoming familiar with the ways of the dominant white culture. If I had stayed on the reservation, I would have probably herded sheep, raised children, and woven rugs. This was expected of Navajo women, just as the Navajo men were expected to plant corn, squash, and melon in the spring, to protect their crop from the rabbits that would destroy their fields, and to harvest the fruits and vegetables in the fall, storing them for the coming winter. This had been the life of the Navajo since time began.
The elders wanted us to go to school, to get an education, and to learn the white man’s language so that we might be able to translate for them. I respected my parents, who could not speak English, for raising ten children and for enduring their very hard lives. They tended their sheep, cattle, and horses, and provided us with a good home.
I boarded a Greyhound bus in Holbrook that took me all the way to San Francisco. What an experience, leaving the Navajo Reservation and traveling to one of the biggest cities in the world by myself. I stood there, looking up at the tall buildings, and wondered why everybody moved so fast. One of the counselors had told me, “If you don’t keep up with the people, they’ll run over you!” I graduated from the school in 1974 and returned to the reservation.
Now, I recall a time in my life, at age 12, when the missionaries came to the Navajo reservation. They came to tell us that our traditions and culture were no good. They said we worshiped Satan. They made people believe we should do away with our traditions and culture, that we should believe in their ways and forsake the beliefs of our forefathers. They brought change to our people and caused many of our people to turn against their own families.
The dominant white culture forced the Navajos out of their comfort zones in an attempt to destroy us. Ever since they came west, they’ve attempted to destroy our people, believing our culture was inferior and should be wiped out. Even though the Navajo held off the Republic of Mexico, keeping it out of the Arizona territory, the strength of the white culture overpowered us!
During the Long Walk from Canyon de Chelly to Fort Sumner, the U.S. Calvary laced the blankets given to our elders with smallpox, killing many of them. They attempted to exterminate the Indians on the western plains, until President Hayes said it must stop. They attempted to destroy our language in the schools, and even in the military, before they realized it could be used as a tool against the Japanese. Nobody has been able to break the Navajo language code, but when the war was over in 1945 and our Navajo Marines came home, they were still told they could not vote in New Mexico and Arizona.
Of the 350,000 registered members of our Navajo Tribe, only 175,000 of them live on the reservation. Those with an education have left to live in the dominant culture, working in the professions of the white man. Many of them have married into other races and are living throughout the United States.
(*Rutherford B. Hayes was the President from 1877-1891)