A Glimpse of Otherness
Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepageIt was the summer of my sophomore year in High School. I had volunteered to go to Vanderwagon, New Mexico and teach at a bible camp. Vanderwagon is a small town near the four corners region on Navajo Indian reservation.
We arrived in town early and were able to look around. It was like going to another country. No paved roads, only the main ones were hard packed dirt. Wal-Mart was 25 minutes away. There was a movie theater that had a coming soon attraction that had already left the theaters in Phoenix and the next largest store was a cattle and horse feed store.
We were living in 2 double wide trailers, one for the boys and one for the girls. There were only a few of us but we had to divide showers up because there was only enough hot water for maybe 2 showers with in a 5 hour period. Not the best of accommodations but hey, I was here to do the work of God and I still had a roof over my head and running water. I could handle it; this was going to be a great time. Wrong
My day started normal enough. I awoke early to feed the horses and prepare a little breakfast for my daughter before her first day at that “camp” they are having down the street. I don’t know if I believe in that religion stuff that is being taught but I like having a safe place to leave her while I go to work. After her mother left us for the big city to be with that “white man” she met, it has been hard to keep a job and an eye on Mary. There is nothing good about “whites” they think they know and own everything. I don’t think I could ever be near a White ghost.
I remember eating breakfast with the other volunteers that morning. It was over cooked, gooey oatmeal, the kind that looks like wallpaper paste, but for some reason, it was the best tasting meal I had ever had. Maybe it was because of how excited the nuns were that they had some food to share with us and some company to share the food with, or maybe it was because I knew I was here to make a difference in some kids’ lives- I guess Ill never truly know.
As the kids start to arrive, I put on my best smile and go out side to greet them and their families while the other volunteers continued to chat at the table. This was a yearly event for these kids. Most kids helped with family livestock or farms and this was their chance to have free time and play. This was an escape for them, most of them did not understand the message we were telling they just wanted to play with hula hoops, a home made basket ball hoop made out of some ply wood and what looked like a rusted bike wheel with the spokes removed, and some jump ropes that were no more than heavy duty rope with knots tied as handles. You could feel the excitement in the air as the kid’s chit chatted in Navaho and English mixed together in a way that only these children would ever be able to understand.
Then it happened
“What….Who…What is that-ghost?” I asked on of the nuns when I was about to drop Mary off. Pulling her towards me in safety
Me? Why is that man looking angrily at me? He was referring to me? What did I do?
“Why is there a “white” person here? Are there others? Why are they here?” I grab my daughter and hold her close away from that white….thing. How dare she come on to our land, doesn’t she have enough of her own? Look at how she is dressed; she probably has 10 cars and a huge mansion. Why does she need to come here, she is just going to trick us and then take something else, the way that man did with me and my wife…ex wife.
I don’t know what to do, I need to be at work in a half an hour and I have no one else to watch Mary.
Why did he call me a ghost? What does he mean…? All the sudden I felt so scared. It didn’t matter that my friends were only a sidewalk away in the next little building or that I was in New Mexico, not some foreign far away country, Here I was in the middle of a dirt parking lot being called a ghost and scarring this father and his little girl without any idea of what I have done. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t imagine what I had done to scare these people. I had never hurt anyone or done anything bad to deserve theses weird looks, I was here to help.
Why does she look so upset? Doesn’t she realize how privileged she is compared to us? She should just go home to her 5 story house. Now Sally is going over to talk to her, she always was a fan of the white culture; she even went to school with some of them and she’s not afraid. Sally is a very sweet lady and is good to our community, but why is she trying to be friends with the ghost?
…what is going on…what do I do…?
Then a little girl and her mom came near, she was no older than 5. She kept looking at her mom and then looking at me.
“Mom is that lady one of the helpers?” She quietly asked her mom.
“Yes honey I think she is, why don’t you go say Hi” The mom replied.
Then she let go of her mom's hand and ran up to me. She started asking me all kinds of questions; Where was I from, what was my name, how long was I going to stay and help, what was it like where I was from. Could she touch my hair. She was asking them so fast I barley had time to answer. The whole time her mom just smiled and watched us. Soon other kids saw us talking and came over also, each with their own set of mile a minute questions. The other dad and his child just stood and watched, still a little apprehensive.
The nuns start to explain to me that “Teresa” is just a visitor and is not going to take anything from our land or cause any problems. She is only here to help the children learn about Jesus. The more I watch Teresa I realize how frightened she is, maybe all whites are not the same, and maybe she really is here to help our community and not harm us. Maybe…
It was almost time to start class when the mom came up and introduced herself. Her grandparents were elders of the village; she had gone to Albuquerque for school and was one of the few college educated people of the village. She explained that the man who called me a ghost had never left the village and that his wife had just left him for a white man.
….wait a second…..that is what this is all about? Being White?
The mom continued to explain. Many of these families had never been off of their reservation and there were not many visitors that would come into this area of the reservation. I was different from them. I had light brown almost reddish hair and it was wavy and frizzy. I was also much paler in skin tone than they were. I was different and to them that was scary. I stood out, and I reminded some of them of what happened ‘before’ He called me a ghost because of my pale skin it is also their derogatory word for white people
I decide that it is ok to leave Mary with her friends and go to work.
When Sally (the mom) explained who I was to some of the other parents they accepted me but were still cautious. I saw her leave with the man that was giving me dirty looks.
I am able to walk into town with Sally and talk about white people. “They're not all the same, they are unique like we are unique individuals,” Sally says.
She tells me that Teresa and some of her friends have come to stay here to show Jesus’ love to us and that she is not here in any evil way. I tell her that I am still upset about my wife leaving me for a white man because he made more money and lived in a big city and how every time you hear about whites…” She interrupts “That’s just it, it’s not ‘every time’ the way one person acts is not the way all people act.” “Give Teresa and her friends a chance, get to know her, talk to her, it will be ok”
That night I ask Mary how the day went, and as she teaches me some of the songs she learned and shows me the picture that Teresa helped her color, I can’t help notice the huge smile on her face. “Daddy, Teresa is only going to be here a few days I think I’m going to miss her later.” Miss a white person? I don’t know about that but tomorrow I will say hi and maybe give the ghost, um girl a chance.
On Friday everyone in my group headed back to Phoenix. A new group would not be arriving until Sunday. I was going to be alone with the nuns and 3 other “white” people until then.
The nuns were going to be brining food baskets to some of the elderly of the village and had said that Sally’s grandparents wanted to meet me so I decided to go. That day I got to see a Hogan and learned to say hello in Navaho. I also started to understand just how isolated they were and little by little how different I really was from them. I was able to speak with the Mary’s dad and even though he was still very reserved I could tell he was starting to understand that I-and my group- were only there to help and we wanted nothing in return.
By the end of my second week I was ready to return home but didn’t want to leave. My time in Vanderwagon really made me thankful for the privileges I have and the little things in life and showed me how easily some people take them for granted. These kids never complained about what they didn’t have or what they wanted. They were excited to get hand me downs. It made me evaluate how I treat people when I judge them unfairly. I learned what it was like to be rejected for something you have no control over and how wonderful it feels to be accepted. It helped me look at the priorities in life, these kids did not know how much money I had and it never was important. It was so exciting to see these little kids go from being terrified of me to wanting to be next to me at all time, waiting for you to get out of the restroom so they could finish the story about how their cow gave birth the night before (its gross even from a 5 year olds mouth) or just sitting braiding the little girls hair, and letting them braid mine.
I was their hero just because I took the time to spend with them, and that meant more than everything to them.
It was hard to be different but I was proud that our group could make such a positive impression of on these people. It’s unfortunate that some of them felt the way they did towards us, but it was very encouraging to see them give us another chance as individuals, not “whites”. If only that was how it happened everywhere.