The Navajo in the Room

My mother’s brother was a college professor at Shiprock College (now renamed Diné College) in New Mexico.  He met and married my aunt Grace, a Navajo woman.  This was exciting news in my all-white Iowa family. Uncle Jim was coming to town with his new bride.

Uncle Jim was tall and slim, and had a beard much like Abraham Lincoln. If only he’d worn a black stovepipe hat, he would’ve been the perfect doppelganger for our greatest president.

Aunt Grace was short and brown, beautiful in her turquoise jewelry and colorful scarves.  She was also a professor, well spoken and quick to smile.

We were enchanted.  My sisters and I received woven bags with our initials on the front. Every time Uncle Jim and Aunt Grace visited, they’d bring more treasures. For a girl who didn’t have much, owning Navajo things was a thrill.

When the family gathered in Des Moines at Thanksgiving or Christmas at my grandparents’ house, there would be twenty relatives around the extended table in the walk-out basement kitchen.  There’d be almost as many children as adults, 7 cousins, a second cousin my age, aunts, uncles, parents, plus three grandparents, a great aunt and uncle.

When Grace spoke, we all listened. She was a born storyteller with a melodic voice, and we were mesmerized.

This multicultural aspect of my childhood would figure into the rest of my life.  Here was a Native American woman, graciously accepted into our family. In contrast, my best friend was growing up in a household of racists where I heard the words spooks, spics, and wetbacks as household language.

My aunts and uncles were educated – three college professors, one high school teacher. My grandfather was an artist, a collector of all things Navajo on the summer trips he took with our grandmother to the Southwest.  My grandparents’ house was soon filled with rugs, pottery, baskets and Navajo art.

Grandma learned how to make anise sugar cookies, which (I found out later) are called biscochos.

Grace’s native language was fascinating. She was so proud of her heritage. We were proud to have her as our aunt.

I wanted to speak another language like Grace. I remember a good school friend taking German because she was part German. I, too, have a German heritage along with Irish, English and Scottish. But for me, Spanish was the way to go. My dad had a hand in that, as well, bringing home a thin Spanish dictionary from his blue-collar job as a printing pressman.

The Navajo language played a role in World War II. It was the one code the Germans couldn’t break when the code talkers relayed strategic messages over the wires.

But I digress.

My aunt was well-respected.  She spoke on a PBS show about the Trail of Tears, the forced march of 60,000 Native Americans from their homelands in the Southeast part of the U.S. to points west of the Mississippi. 4,000 of them died, either on the march or soon after arriving at their new lands.  Several contracted European diseases and because they had no immunity, they died.

How ironic that I am writing this during a pandemic where none of us has immunity to the novel virus, Covid 19.

It’s funny what one thinks of when one has a chance to reflect in these stay-at-home days of early summer.

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