I left Naʹnízhoozhi (Gallup, New Mexico), my hometown, eight months after I graduated from high school. The train tracks, the fields of scattered broken glass, the summer ditches filled with sunflowers and thistles, and all the people there.
I moved to Albuquerque for school at the University of New Mexico. Like 6 a.m. light in my eyes, the next two years were all reading, studying and part time work. I didn’t have close friends, but was visited constantly by my lesbian friend from high school, Mia and every other weekend by my family.
I was twenty the first time I got drunk, which for growing up in Gallup was considerably late. There was me, three lesbians (including Mia), and one woman of questionable sexuality in the Howard Johnson’s off of I-25. I had 12 shots of tequila. The next day I went to class at 9:30 a.m. and took judicious notes, perfectly sober.
Two years later, May of 1995, I received a big envelope with the word “congratulations” on the back flap. It was just a week earlier I had been accepted as a transfer student to Cornell University. This envelope was my transfer acceptance into Stanford University. I was un-phased and immediately thought of months of blowing snow, as I mailed the acceptance postcard back to Stanford admissions.
Four months later, September of 1995, my mother prayed over me in Jicarilla Apache, as she, crying, left me and my few belongings in my dorm room. Save for a one-month high school writing program, I hadn’t lived away from Gallup for any significant time before. And even though I was poor, brown, Native, and backward, I felt proud, I felt I belonged.
In my first English class, “17th Century Lyric Poetry,” I was the only person of color. This one girl made a joke in French to which the rest of the class chuckled, as I sat there completely unaware. Then a few moments later, this other girl was asked to read a poem aloud. Even though on the page it was written in English, she started reciting it in Latin, which the rest of the class followed perfectly. I felt like I was back at Jefferson Elementary in Gallup, when these white kids were calling this poor girl from Smith Lake dirty and stupid. I had sat there, hoping they wouldn’t look at me next.
At this time I had many white and Asian friends in my dorm. I felt like I didn’t need to make Native friends, because my few interactions with the Natives on campus weren’t very impressive. I felt like the theme song for the Native program should’ve been 70’s Cher in a black wig with lots of turquoise singing “Half-breed.”
Growing up in Gallup, most of the children of interracial parentage didn’t appreciate us “fullbloods” and mostly hung out with the white kids. They were usually the children of Navajo women who married “out,” or as everyone said in town, married “up,” which generally socio-economically was the case.
Then there were the Navajo orphans adopted by non-Navajos. Many changed their last names because they sounded too Navajo. From Blackgoat to Black, from Manychildren to Mitchell. And then there were those special cases.
One girl denied having a Native parent. Being one of the popular, wealthy, “dumb” girls in school I never suspected she was Navajo. It wasn’t until years after high school that I met her parents and realized she wasn’t Hispanic like she told us. Her father was Navajo. I never saw her hang out with any Navajos. Even though we had the same classes for four years, I think she talked to me once. My views on racially mixed people have been colored by my experiences in Gallup.
So I didn’t have any Native friends my first quarter at Stanford and I thought I was just a regular student, making friends with people in my dorm. Those few white and Asian friends I had made me feel welcome. So within the pseudo-liberal safety of Stanford and with my new friends support, I called my family, my parents and four primary siblings, chatted briefly with them before I told them I was gay. I was 20 years old.
I had waited until I was away from home and had a place to go to if my family rejected me. I waited until I felt safe on my own to come out because I had heard the stories.
I had a Hopi friend who told his family he was gay and they threw him out. He was 17 at the time. I had another friend whose father beat her when she told him she was a lesbian. I had another friend who tried to commit suicide when her mother rejected her when she came out. There are so many stories. They gather like reeds in a stream, damming any progress until the water bursts forth and flows, like truth. My Native people have been the only ones to make me feel most ashamed of being different.
In Gallup, I have many Navajo “queen” friends, who haven’t officially come out to white gay standards. They’re flamboyant, perverse and unrepentant at the bars and with each other. At home, they’re the perfect sons to overbearing mothers or grandmothers. I don’t know if they’re lonely but sometimes when they drink and think no one is looking, they cry to themselves.
They don’t sleep with each other, other “girlfriends,” but rather have sex with the other Navajos in Gallup who are either closeted and married or looking for an easy, equal “trade.” My one friend who was raised “traditional” as she says, informed us one night that this situation is how it had always been, even before the onslaught of the Europeans. Her grandmother told her it was like this way back when and nobody objected or beat them for it.
They were called Nádleehi, Navajo for “one who changes.” It’s the alternative gender for Navajo persons who otherwise present as male but perform the Navajo women’s historical gender role, including weaving, household work, land ownership and child rearing.
Several years before the death of Matthew Shepard—in the parking lot of a drag bar in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a Navajo drag queen was stabbed to death. A month later another Native drag queen was stabbed to death. And then another. Three Native drag queens killed in the course of a two month period. The police attributed it to a “domestic violence” situation where each girl was killed by a close friend or relative. There was no in depth investigation and there is still no arrest for all three murders.
I know if I was found dead in a Gallup field, the white (now even Navajo or Zuni Pueblo) officers who would find me would not give a second thought as to how I would have died. They would presume I died from an alcohol related death or a drug overdose or from a murder committed by one of my drinking friends over money.
And if they found out I was gay, there would be no investigation about a “hate crime.” Just like the numerous “fag bashings” that happen all the time in Gallup, the police would show up and settle the “domestic” dispute but not arrest anyone unless it’s the gay person who is being disruptive or drunk.
So I waited until I was 20 years of age and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Presumably not the most liberal place in the world but certainly one of the more open cities in the US and I felt relieved.
My family didn’t reject me. My mother cried. My sister Cindy told me, “No matter what I will always love you.”
And if I was white that would be the end of the story. But I’m not. I know when I walk down the streets in Gallup, no matter what I’m wearing, where I’ve been, what I know or do not know, all my complexity can be reduced down to my hair, my color and my profile. White tourists speak slowly to me when they ask for directions or make the extra effort to be even more considerate but just short of being truly condescending. But it just isn’t white tourists.
I come home and go to the flea market or the Indian Health Service clinic and folk always begin speaking Navajo to me before I interrupt and correct them. They always seem disappointed I don’t speak Navajo fluently. Even though, if they press the issue I tell them my mother’s Jicarilla Apache, they still insist I should know. On the one hand, it’s good to have the expectation, on the other, it’s a burden that I’m not sure is mine.
My parents made the choice for me about whether I was to speak their languages or not. Both of my parents primary languages were Navajo and Jicarilla Apache. My father was taken away to boarding school at the age of 6, my mother at the age of 5. They were both abused and subjected to humiliating efforts to burn English into them.
My mother remembers—when she lets herself—as a young girl being in her nightgown at 3 a.m. cleaning the cement steps to the Santa Fe Indian School with her only toothbrush. Her crime was speaking Jicarilla Apache to the other Apache girls. My dad doesn’t speak of his boarding school years.
It was this history my parents remembered when the decision came of whether or not to teach their children their first languages. It was this and the racism they faced away from their respective communities that shaped their views. I blame them for nothing.
We can’t undo history. What’s done is done. If I choose to learn the languages now, it should be my privilege to do so, but not my burden. Which doesn’t mean I’m not glad other people grow up bilingual (and with more and more bilingual programs, this will surely increase), but I’m not going to feel bad either because I’ve had the history I’ve had. It’s maddening what we put ourselves through in order to feel we belong somewhere. I cannot help but belong where I was born and to whom I am related.
Yet even in my primary language, I am not completely welcome. In my senior year at Stanford, I went to ask for help from the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the English Department. I told him my English advisor, who was going through tenure review at the time, was too busy to offer me sufficient help to finish my senior thesis (which was no fault of my advisor’s, I felt). I told him my thesis, about American Indian women’s poetry and American Indian gay and lesbian poetry, needed the academic leadership that the department wasn’t otherwise providing. I told him my concerns as a Native person weren’t being met.
He, without any pause or long consideration, told me my concerns as a Native person did not matter. “I don’t think your concerns as a Native person are significant.” I said nothing for a while and then thanked him for his help and left his office. Later that quarter I didn’t finish the school session but “walked” at graduation nonetheless. I left Stanford without a degree in 1999 and didn’t return until 2002 to finish.
So three years later when I returned to Stanford to finish my English degree, I tried harder to fit in as an urban gay Native in San Francisco.
I would walk down the Castro and go into A Different Light bookstore and never feel more brown. Like an anthropologist or a hobbyist, I knew exactly where the gay “Native” section was and made a beeline to it. The few books they had were mostly by lesbians and the couple of gay Native book’s authors were whiter than the blonde man who kept eyeing me the whole time I was there.
To most gay men I am Asian or Latino, at the very best, exotic. Even knowing this, with this attractive white man staring at me, I had felt cute. I walked up to him and said “Hi.” He said, “I’m not into Asians.” I didn’t correct him. I said nothing. Gay white men have been the only other ones to make me feel most ashamed of being different.
That June, I went to the 2002 Gay Pride potluck for the Bay Area Native community. Again Cher’s “Half-breed” played in the background. Besides me there were two other Navajo men, (one of whom was afflicted with AIDS) and a dark brown women of indeterminate Nation. She kept looking across the table at me, lost, like she knew me but had forgotten my name. Most everyone was nice but otherwise blond and blue-eyed.
Yet it still didn’t feel like home. Except for one moment when the Navajo guy with AIDS, who had his white partner with him, who was also afflicted, started to eat. The white guy got up and got a plate of food for his light brown partner, kissed him on the forehead, put a fork in the guy’s hand and helped him to eat.
That one kiss denied a history of me not existing, it denied the idea that I do not love. It told me I exist, not in spite of everyone, but because of everyone. It told me that home for some of our people is wherever they make it.
A lot of the rhetoric in the literature on Native peoples is all culture-speak about what’s supposedly going on with us: traditional or modern, loss of culture or return of culture. It seems like everyone thinks we’re supposed to be only one or another, rather than just being who we are, living the history we’re dealt. They say we live in “two worlds.”
I’ve learned in school that “culture” is a concept with historical roots primarily in anthropology, which from what I’ve read, isn’t about Native lives so much as it is concerned with making up “truths” about them. The term “culture” does not exhaust the Native experience in any significant way.
I for one, do not live in two worlds. I live in one world, granted, one that at times, has a lot of white people in it, but one world nonetheless. And even though I have no clear idea who I am at every moment, I think I should have some leeway as far as finding out who I am. To read some of the academic or creative literature on Native people, you’d think we’d all have to be perfectly “Indian” by 25. I certainly believe my ancestors didn’t die so their progenitors would have to fit some untenable model of what a Native should be to fulfill white fantasies about our history.
But the one-history report of who Native people are will continue because there aren’t other voices published and disseminated. And there are a whole lot of Native identified writers who don’t come from Native communities that need to make ends meet so this story will continue.
We all have culture, whether we like aspects of it or not is up to ourselves to decide. Whether or not that culture is “Native” or not is up to the community of people from which we claim association to decide.
We’re constantly told what is supposed to be “traditional.” But I know stories about “traditional” medicine men who beat their wives, and in one horrible case, have molested their children. There was a story in the Gallup Independent about a medicine man raping a woman who went to him for help.
I know Gallup fills up at the first of the month with grandchildren and children who wait for their parents’ or grandparents’ social security checks to buy new TVs or stereos, to go out to eat, or to drink their entire checks away. I know persons who’ve stolen their grandmother’s Pendleton blankets and jewelry and pawned them for alcohol. These same people would say I act too white or need to become fluent in Navajo.
I also know good Christians, good Native American Church-goers and several good urban Navajo, who don’t have any religion. These people would not be considered “traditional” but do not hurt themselves or others.
I also know many good people, including my grandparents, who cannot help but live how their parents, their grandparents and their great-grandparents have lived.
We all have culture, whether we are good people or not is informed by that culture but not determined by it. There is no one “culture” that automatically makes you a good person. It is how you live your life. There are many paths to beauty, as the saying goes.
Our experience is more and less complicated than the literature attests. This needs to change. I, myself, have four fingers on the edge of a rainbow and I am leaning into the cool mist of an ever expanding present, getting less and less afraid every day to say what I mean.
I know what it is like to be among the mountains and in the ceremonies of my mother’s people. I know what it is like to be walking into Bloomingdale’s at Stanford Shopping Center and buying the Salvatore Ferragamo half boot, and then into Kenneth Cole’s, and buying the 50’s inspired black polyurethane jacket all the sporty gays were then wearing to the clubs without a second thought and without any spending money for the rest of the term. I do not live in two worlds. I live in one world, where I make both good and bad choices, one in which I know there are other Natives with less and more power to choose than I have.
My ancestors made a choice, the same one all Native people do at some point, whether it is a quick thought or a long drawn out deliberation, we have all made the choice. When we’re young for some, when we’re old for others, and then there are those who make it for years at a time: the choice of whether to live or die.
For many it is as if there is almost no thought to the choice they make. For others there is the seven years’ time, or fourteen years, or a life time of living to choose. My ancestors made the choice to go on living, through a tuberculosis plague, the onslaught of white people, Comanches to the east and Cheyenne to the north. I’m not sure if it was a simple choice for them or a hard won one but I know they made it because I am here now. I am the exponential sum of my ancestors’ prayers, dreams, and love for one another.
And at the end of all the drama is me and even if I’m brown, Native, dirty, stupid, poor, gay, backward and crazy—it doesn’t matter. Because just like my ancestors, I’ll go on as well.
Sometime within the past seven years, I made the choice to keep going, to not stop until I can walk no more and I lay my life down and rest. Like my parents, my grandparents, my clansmen and clanswomen, my people—I will go on.
I live between white people and Native people, and choose the one by denying the other. I live between male and female. I live between my ancestors and my own uncertain future, trying to remember the prayers that kept them going. I live between Jicarilla Apache and Navajo. I live between the reservation and the city. I used to live between the living and the dead. I used to live between my dreams and reality, destroying my successful future so I could have an anguish-free present of poverty. I choose a life of non-contradiction. I choose to not have to choose either one or the other. I choose to live indeterminate, ambiguous, in-between and always changing.
Dwayne Martine | is a poet and writer living in Scottsdale, Arizona. He has been published in
national and regional print and online journals, including Kweli, Malpais Review, Yellow Medicine Review and others. He has an undergraduate degree in English from Stanford University. He works as a professional technical writer in the financial services industry.