I was born in Los Angeles, California and lived there with my three brothers, my mother, who is a Native American from the Hopi/Tewa tribes, and my father, who is African American. As a youth, I and my three brothers would move back and forth from Southern California to the state of Arizona, depending on whether or not my parents would separate. When they finally decided to separate for the final time, as teenagers, we moved with my mother to Polacca, Arizona which is on the Hopi Indian reservation located in Northern Arizona in the middle of the Navajo Indian reservation.
The Hopi Indian reservation has a population of 12,000 plus people, predominantly Native Americans with exception of the fifty plus Anglo teachers and doctors who reside on the reservation. In the winter it is cold and warm in the summers and somewhat desolate all year round, with Highway 264 the only road connecting the reservation to the next city 60 miles away. The only noises to be heard are the stray dogs barking, birds chirping as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If you blinked while driving on Highway 264, you would miss the Hopi Indian reservation. The Hopi and Tewa tribes are very rich in culture and perform various ceremonies all year round following a calendar which used the moon, stars, and sun to determine when the ceremonies will be performed. The ceremonies involve social dances performed by children, teenagers and adults and sacred ceremonies which can only be performed in the Hopi villages on mesa tops that reach the sky about 6000 ft. above sea level. Only a single road takes you up and down to the houses located below and connecting to Highway 264. The social and sacred ceremonies consists of very colorful costumes, feathers, harmonious songs and sounds of drums beating that can put a baby to sleep. As a visitor who has not heard the songs before, you would find yourself tapping your feet to the slow and interesting beats hypnotizing you to a very relaxed state. You could walk as far as you wanted and not worry about being hit by a car and there are no borders stopping your forward progress, unlike the city where buildings and streets are your boundaries.
Living in Southern California, I enjoyed going to the beaches and hearing the sounds of the waves crushing on shore, the seagulls flying above my head, the sounds of happy children playing by the water while building sand castles. Although there were a lot more activities to do, like going to the mall, walking down to the local convenience store (7-eleven), sometimes with my father and brothers or just I and my brothers to pick up a few items (cigarettes in particular) that my father would request. We would walk to the grocery store with my mom and push back shopping carts filled with groceries. We would later use the carts for laundry baskets, pushing them to the local Laundromat every weekend. Sometimes we hated these chores, because we would have to get up early mornings to do the laundry, but we knew there was an arcade next door which was fun and we knew we would get some money for our chores. Living in the city, we were limited as to where we could go and how late we could stay outside because of the crimes associated with city life. Plus, my father was very disciplinary, which meant we had to be inside when he said to be inside. California is also filled with green trees, green grass, and city parks with swimming pools, where we had barbeques with family and sometimes went to the drive-in theatres with our uncles. The best part of living in California was that we had both of our parents and we were a family and it didn’t matter what chores we did and how disciplined my father was, we were together again as a family. During our elementary years we headed back to Arizona for the first time to live with my grandparents into unknown territory.
As I and my brothers moved from Los Angles, California, a multicultural city, to the reservation of one culture, it was important to us to make friends and fit in with the rest of the children in elementary school as well as the other kids on the reservation. This was a problem for four kids with darker skin and thick wavy hair, unlike the rest of the kids who had straight hair and lighter skin. We were considered outsiders and got into bloody fistfights on the rough and sometimes hot blacktop where all the kids would play happily with the exception of me and my brothers. We had to defend ourselves just about once a week. This made us want to move back to California. We couldn’t because this was our home for now. It was a very significant time in my life.
I remember kids making racial comments about the African American race and calling me a “nigger”. My understanding of the word nigger was a term used to refer to slaves and I was never a slave (well maybe I thought I was when I had to push the groceries back home and laundry to the Laundromat). How could someone use such a term and not know the meaning behind it? This was the reason for bloody fistfights involving a person who is now a good friend of mine to this day. When I asked him later what the reasoning was behind the racist comments, he stated, “The reasons for my cruel and racists comments were because of the fact that I was a child. I made comments and did things I didn’t mean or perhaps at the time, my intention was to intimidate or put down any non-Hopi children we didn’t consider our own because they are not of the same color, race and they don’t speak our language.” He also said, “Non-Hopis should not participate in our tribal ceremonies and non-Hopi children just don’t belong in the culture!” I thought to myself, “Who was he to know where I belonged!”
As a teenager there was another time where I encountered racism, but this time I was not the victim. This incident occurred when I attended an all Native American boarding school in Riverside, California, which was the last time I, my brothers and my mother moved to California and also the last time we would live with our father. This time I was on the side of Native Americans. The school had a fence, a “border” that surrounded it, keeping Native Americans inside the fence and non-natives outside the fence. This time I was not the victim of racism, because once I passed through that fence and went off campus, I felt comfortable because I blended into the mixed cultures that resided in the neighborhood. I blended in. But Native American students left the campus in groups of three minimum because of the racism occurring from the Anglos toward the Natives. The Anglos would drive by yelling out profanity words and making sounds from an old western movie of the Native bands chasing a wagon trail of people. “They call us crazy Indians”.
Because of the racist incidents in elementary school and high school, racism has changed how I think about the people of class, race, ethnicity, etc. An example of how it has changed my thinking is, at my previous jobs I often would wonder how people I worked with can just walk right past me and not acknowledge me. I would think that if people have to work together, it would be nice to say “hello” or “good morning”. I have not only experienced this at work, but in other public places. As I walk by Anglos, the majority of them just turn their heads as if I don’t exist, but when I pass by a non-Anglo, they have no problem acknowledging me by nodding, smiling or even saying hello. Could I just be paranoid? I sometimes make a game out of it and make it a point to saying hello to Anglos just to see what kind of a response I would get back, which sometimes I get and sometimes I don’t. I know it is a terrible way to acknowledge someone, considering the reasoning behind it, but who knows, maybe it will make a difference and maybe it won’t.
For someone who has experienced racism first hand from two different directions, I sometimes find myself stereotyping other cultures and identifying them in a specific class. I would sometimes see a Mexican male crossing the street or just doing his own thing and I would refer to him as “Julio” or another Mexican name or word they would not like if they were to hear it, especially if it is not their name. I know I would be offended. I am also prejudiced against Navajo males, which is bad considering my fiancé is full-blooded Navajo, which makes my son half Navajo. My prejudice towards Navajos comes from the racial prejudice from the Navajos I went to school with, who referred to me as a “ZHINI”, which is as derogatory to me as “nigger”.
I went from experiencing racism first hand to being part of the problem. Although it is not intentional, I am still contributing to the racism that is going on in the world today. Until we change our attitudes about people of different races, ethnicity, sexuality, class, etc, the cycle of prejudices will continue. As in my own case, I may think my intentions are not harmful, and others out there may think the same, but it is this kind of thinking that takes its negative toll on society. This awareness has really opened my eyes and allowed me to step back and see people from a different view and not become part of society that judges’ people based on their ethnicity.
Racism has and will always be on my mind because I have experienced it from childhood into adulthood and still witness it today. This is an issue that exists today and will continue to exist until people’s attitudes change. It has also shaped my life by the way I think and act toward others.
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