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Almost Human

Deborah Taffa

Dad laughed with the booming violence that always made me look over my shoulder. Of course, he was not in the back seat of my car. He was not on this trip with me. I slapped my cheek and told myself I should stop at the next gas station for coffee. But even then, I looked over my shoulder again, still believing I might find him there.

It was the stupor that follows a long flight and a four-hour drive on a dull Arizona highway. The confusion that arises after a string of bland hotels, too little sleep, and a month on the road. Many have experienced this disorientation when driving through a blizzard, fewer in a sandstorm.

Imagine jumping on the highway exhausted, and as you cross the border into California the steering wheel begins to tug and pull your hand. The wind is blowing hard, and the Imperial Sand Dunes sweep across the highway, pecking your car with a sound more frenetic and violent than hail. You slow to a crawl, but the sand flies forward into the headlamps, and the driving slant of dirt coming at your windshield makes you forget: who you are, where you are, when you started on this journey.

You pull over. When the storm ends, you stumble out and stand beside the road. The asphalt bounces hot breath in your face. You look deeper into California and see a puddle of water in the middle of the highway. You’ve landed on some faraway planet. You are an adult, and you know the water is a mirage, but imagine you are a child who hasn’t learned she’s being fooled.

I grew up here on the Yuma Reservation in southeastern California, the ancestral lands of my paternal grandfather. His mother was Shoshone-Paiute, and his wife, my grandmother Esther, came from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. My father’s clanship is Badger people at Laguna Pueblo for the Keepers of the Water people of the Yuma Nation, yet for all his tribal connections my childhood was confined to our family’s southernmost reservation: the Yuma Nation. Holidays were a medley of Native languages, but only my great-grandfather spoke Quechan, the local Yuma language.

I lived in the southern desert for the first six years of my life, and there is no doubt that I prefer the high desert of Laguna Pueblo instead. The Sonoran Desert requires too much of the body to survive. There are cloudless skies and brutal sun, the absence of moisture and shade. Temperatures rise to 120 degrees in summer yet drop so low at night one can easily freeze.

The desert’s primary trait is deception. My childhood home is favored by the Fata Morgana. Long before I understood illusions, I saw castles and ships floating over the horizon. I chased turrets and sails only to see them vanish. The ideas I had about my family back then were confused by loss, Indian stereotypes, and silenced histories. I was small and invisible like all Indian kids are, a ghost child in love with mirages.

We were broken girls. We twisted our ankles sailing off playground swings, toppled out of tamarisk trees, plucked yellow-jacket and broken glass stingers out of our skin. We slammed our fingers in car doors, burned our feet in campfires, and then sat in the waiting room at the Yuma Indian hospital, ice pressed to injuries.

Joan broke her wrist. I broke my collarbone. Lori had a two-inch scar down the center of her chest. Monica slipped through the handrails of a tall metal slide and landed twenty feet below. The reservation was rowdy in the 1970s. Scars were a main source of pride.

Put a little whiskey in Dad’s beer, and he got to talking about his friends. Crushed under a fast-moving train. Stabbed in the chest during an alley fight. Propped against a tree in a public park with a hot needle sticking out of an arm. Killed overseas in a land mine explosion. Mom tried to shush Dad when he told us his stories. But he said we needed to know the truth if we were going to survive, to hear how tough the world could be.

Swagger was a great way to get praise. Despondency hung over the reservation, and when tiny kids acted rebellious, adults saw hope and verve. A sassy girl was a girl who might make it, even given the dismal odds. My sisters and I did what we could to impress.

We rejected all things girlie. We painted our dolls’ faces with markers, tattooing their chins in the style of our female ancestors. We chopped off their hair, and when they grew grotesque, threw their heads in the trash can and danced their bodies around, calling out like barkers selling tickets to see Geronimo at the World’s Fair: “Come and see the Amazing Headless Wonders!” We were unruly Indian girls, not the friendly Thanksgiving Day type who knew how to cook and behave. Our mother said it was too late to teach us any manners.

Dad always said, “Broken bones grow back stronger.” He raised us the same way his older brother, Gene, raised him. A father’s job was to control the pace of the world’s wounding; to dole out the pain in slightly bigger doses each time so his kids wouldn’t break under the pressure. This is what I think of when I think of my sisters and me: we didn’t get anything for free, and we blossomed because of it, blood flowering into bruises, skin thick and ripened in the Sonoran Desert sun.

The toughness we saw in our elders was rooted in pain, and for this reason I have always considered crying men courageous. I remember an old neighbor bawling his eyes out over his dog, Rocco.

You never saw a dog as spastic as Rocco. He made a play for freedom every time our neighbor opened his front door. “Rocco, you shit!” we’d hear him yell. The screen door would slam, and the chase would begin.

Rocco wouldn’t heel, and our neighbor couldn’t catch him. It was dodge and go for thirty minutes every time, an entertaining show that my sisters and I watched with glee. We scrambled on top of the swamp cooler and cheered Rocco on, loving the way he sidled in and ducked away at the last second.

The downside to our afternoon pleasure was the finish. The longer it took our neighbor to catch poor Rocco, the harder he would kick him once he got him leashed. “You fat old bastard!” we yelled.

Rocco’s owner lived alone. He passed us Popsicles through the rip in his front screen door, but only if we’d stay with him for a while after eating. Cold and sticky and sweet, the Popsicles were a treat we never had in our own refrigerator, with its week-old refried beans, lard-hardened cheese enchiladas, and Bud Light beer. When we finished he’d come out and wash our hands with the hose. Then he’d gather us around his lawn chair, take one of us on his lap, and crack stupid jokes. We couldn’t leave because that would mean abandoning whoever he had on his lap. The rest of us gnawed nervously on the Popsicle sticks until he let the unlucky one go.

“Next time I ain’t taking one of those Popsicles,” we would swear. Then his jalopy would crunch up the driveway, and we’d see him carrying sacks emblazoned with the words Del Sol Grocery to the carport door. Our mud cakes would fall to the ground. We risked plenty for those Popsicles. Our parents gave us strict instructions to stay away from him.

“Don’t go near that guy,” neighbors warned. They said the only reason he lived in Yuma was because his ex-wife died and left him her house. They said never to trust an Indian who doesn’t want to go back to his own reservation.

It was hard to be certain about anyone because we were always moving. We were simultaneously rooted in the land and homeless in it due to the region’s history. My great-grandparents received their land in 1884, but President Roosevelt revoked the treaty nine years after it was signed, giving the entire reservation to the Bureau of Reclamation for farm development.

The Colorado River was healthier back then, its water strong. In June, the river rose and burst its banks. When it subsided in July, my ancestors planted their seeds along its irrigated shore. The soil was valuable, and the bureau set aside five acres per tribal member before giving the rest to white farmers. After protesting, my great-grandparents earned an extra five acres each in 1912, but by then the river had been dammed and the old way of planting was gone.

Only four houses could be built on our family’s twenty acres, according to federal law. One home every five acres, and by the time Dad started a family, his older siblings had already moved in. With only a fifth of our treaty land remaining, my family lived in duplexes, apartments, and run-down stucco houses, rental properties on both sides of the river.

When the rattler got Rocco, our neighbor’s scream ripped the desert. I was hiding behind clothesline sheets in a game of hide and seek when I heard him yell Rocco’s name. I came out of white cotton to see his shovel moving like a jackhammer as he chopped the rattler in two.

He threw the shovel down and limped over to Rocco. His good leg buckled. We inched closer. Rocco was bleeding out of two puncture wounds and his forehead was starting to swell. “What’re you staring at?” our neighbor yelled.

The rock wasn’t big, and he only threw one. It struck the back of my hand, and my sisters took off running. Stunned by the pain, I lost them. The memory gets lost, too, at this point, but I always say I ran down to the river. I wouldn’t have gone home while I was crying.

I sat there throwing rocks in the water, wishing Dad would pummel our neighbor. I’d seen him knock a guy off his feet with one punch, but he was straightening his life out, and his new docility embarrassed me. Like all the kids in my family, I admired Uncle Gene. He was six foot five and vicious as sin, the object of our uncritical hero worship. He’d stagger in with one swollen eye, my younger uncles pale and shaking beside him because they’d been his passengers as he raced the train, crossing the tracks just in front of it.

There were, of course, things I didn’t understand until years later. I knew that Dad was the second oldest brother in a family of ten kids, that Uncle Gene was five years his senior and the eldest of the entire herd. But what I didn’t know eclipsed what I did: Uncle Gene forced Dad to fight one of his very best friends when they were ten years old, and when the friend went down and Dad wanted to stop, Uncle Gene threatened to beat Dad to a pulp unless he kept kicking. The longer Dad kicked, the angrier he got, until the anger took over, and the kicking felt good, and he cracked two of his very best friend’s ribs.

Uncle Gene made his oldest daughter, Peanut, fight as well. He took her to the house of a guy he hated and forced her to fight the guy’s daughter. He used to make Peanut, who was only twelve years old at the time, drive him and his friends around the reservation when they were drinking. I never saw her skinny elbow sticking out of the window as she backed down the driveway or heard her begging to stay home.

I didn’t know that my Uncle Gene was the last person in our immediate family to go to Phoenix Indian boarding school as a child, or that they chopped off his hair and put him in child-size handcuffs. Perhaps because my parents never finished high school, or because my grandparents were stunned by cultural trauma, I didn’t know the history: after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, Native Americans lost their sovereign status and became wards of the US government. Richard Henry Pratt, leader of the Friends of the Indians, and founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, sold his idea of “killing the Indian to save the man” to Congress and kept a catalog of before-and-after photos: Native kids with long hair and traditional clothing on the left, the same kids with short hair and suits on the right.

I didn’t understand that my father’s education in a Catholic elementary school further damaged our ancestral memories, or that it ostracized my father from his Yuma peers because his mother’s people at Laguna Pueblo practiced an indigenized Catholicism and Christianity was not popular on the Yuma Reservation. Five hundred years of mainstream media including best-selling captivity narratives, Wild West shows, and television Westerns had branded the “Indian” for all time, making him synonymous with wilderness and an antonym for civilization. I didn’t know that this meant the more modern an “Indian” becomes, the more society questions whether or not he can claim to be who he is.

Most importantly, I didn’t know that one night when my father was sixteen and doing math homework at home, trying to get to bed early because he had a big football game the next night, my Uncle Gene called from downtown Yuma and said he needed to be picked up. He’d been in a fight. My dad was sent to fetch his older brother in the family car, and a gang of Gene’s friends piled in when my dad arrived at the address he’d been given. The cops chased them, and Uncle Gene placed his foot over my dad’s foot on the gas pedal to try to escape, and my father lost control of the car along the All-American Canal and flipped it into the water. One of their friends failed to emerge from the canal that night. It was the first time Dad got in trouble with the law, and he got sent away.

Until I started school, I didn’t know Dad had gone to prison. He’d ended up in solitary confinement where he’d nearly gone mad, and when he emerged from the hole he washed his face in the sink and looked in the mirror, realizing, finally, that he would never be able to defend his humanity or freedom by fighting for it with his fists.

Unlike my older sisters, who witnessed more of Dad’s madness, I was born after his crookedness was finally becoming straight, after any illusion he’d had about who he was in America’s eyes had gone to die. Dad was a pragmatist by the time I came into the world, in the final throes of the long spiritual crisis many Natives go through in order to build an identity they can live with in peace. If he knew the atrocities that had been committed against our people over the course of American history, he rarely spoke of them.

Some family histories are so painful they require decades to unfreeze. Understanding the past, for a Native American family, is like sifting through the wreckage of an earthquake. Only fragments are found: leather, bone, broken pottery, indigenous knowledge in shards. Dad and Uncle Gene raged to be seen rather than to be thought of as vanished or extinct, but they didn’t have the education to contextualize or communicate what they were feeling. The complexities of life for a mixed-tribe Native family in the 1950s has never been portrayed in books, on television, or in the media, and without talking about it at home, we didn’t understand our own inheritance. Absent a voice, Mary Rowlandson, Buffalo Bill, the Friends of the Indian, and the Lone Ranger spoke for us, prescribing what we needed.

I mourn my community’s broken bonds with the natural world and the way the Catholic Church dehumanized my ancestors by calling them “heathens.” I think of the the false righteousness and greed that led leaders of the church to write the Doctrine of Discovery, a papal bull granting land rights to any Christian nation settling an “empty” territory. I resent that the interpreters of terra nullius declared five continents of people only “almost human” because of spiritual beliefs that differed from their own.

Every generation is different from the last, and I’ve asked my own children to look at history, and to speak when they remember the atrocities of the past. There were too many times in my life when I despaired of human love because we lived in a house that was silent. God’s love is all that remains for a child living in a community filled with pain, which is a terrifying thought when one considers my sisters and I were taken to Catholic Mass, where those in control depicted God as an old white man.

The Holy Spirit was mine, I decided early on, because I could relate to its impermanent form: a swooping white dove, a jumping tongue of fire, a wind shaping the sand dunes in the desert. Unlike Dad, who thought we had to rise to be equal, I believed Christians should come down to earth and join the rest of us in our humble humanity.

I am haunted by my family’s pain. Dad is haunted by the death of his childhood friends. Grandma Esther was haunted by ghosts who waited near the canal when she went to haul water or cried near the mission at dusk. Here is the last thing you need to know to understand my childhood: desert mirages remind us of unseen worlds. Shifting sands expose our impermanence. The very sunset holds the blood of our ancestors, and when the wind blows, we hear them mourn.

The day after Rocco died we played house outside while watching for our neighbor. We set up alongside the carport, fought for real estate, drew squares in the dirt to mark our homes. If we’d been playing inside, we would have stretched blankets over chairs and used books to hold the corners of our fiefdom in place. Outside, everything required more imagination. We called each other “Mary.”

“Mary, can I borrow some flour?”

“Sure, Mary, but why don’t you go to the store?”

“Jeez Mary, didn’t you hear the price of beer?”

We stopped and tried to convince each other to take a different name. “Why don’t you be Sara?”

“You be Sara. I’m Mary.”

Standing near Rocco’s grave, our youngest sister snapped. “We can’t all be Marys!”

She went inside and came out with our father’s belt, pulled from his dirty work jeans. She swung, trying to catch our legs with the buckle. We ran around the back of our house.

She ran behind us, hitching up her shorts with one hand while striking with the other. The buckle hit the stucco of the house with a loud clap. It cracked our legs, stinging bone. We screamed, but no one came outside.

We took turns, and the whipping made us laugh. To have the courage to injure each other, to face a whipping from someone our size instead of someone bigger, to dodge and weave instead of worming to the bottom of the pile where the belt might miss, was a salve. Acceptance lessens pain because it lessens fear. There’s something about being prepared.

“Poor Rocco,” my sisters and I repeated when we were done hurting each other with the belt. Our faces had streaks of dirt running from the corners of our eyes to our chins. We looked at our neighbor’s front door, hoping he’d appear from down the dark hall. But even with it slightly ajar, all we could see was black.

Imagine great smoking stacks and a small town’s blackened horizon. See the Navajo, Apache, Pueblo, and Yuma Indian men winding up the metal staircase to the top of the generating station where they stand on a platform twelve stories high and look out over the desert plateau. They bow their heads and greet the sunrise together, saying a prayer in Navajo, before heading down to clean fly ash and weld. We are halfway between Shiprock and Farmington at the Four Corners Power Plant on the Navajo reservation.

After Dad met Mom, and he resolved to stay out of trouble, he hit a period of depression. He had no high school diploma and no job prospects. Few Native people made a living wage in the 1960s—even model citizens who had never been in trouble with the law. Dad vowed never to return to prison but didn’t know what to do, until one day his father came and told him about a new government program, one that would replace the boarding school attempts at assimilation.

The Indian Relocation Act, or public law 959, involved vocational training. Part of the government’s Termination Policy, the law aimed to get young people in Native America to move to big cities and learn a trade. A medical license or law degree may have been elusive, but the government would train Natives to take the dirty jobs no one else wanted.

Many Natives who signed up for the training became welders, machinists, millworkers, and mechanics, while others dropped out before graduating. They missed their homeland, but when they tried to go back to their reservations many found that they couldn’t return because the Termination Policy had taken away their tribal statuses. In this way, the program created the greatest migration of Natives in history. Eighty-five percent of Natives lived on their home reservations in the 1950s, while today it’s only fifteen. Many ended up homeless on city streets.

Relocation offices were set up in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Denver. Phoenix, Saint Louis, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Chicago followed. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was in charge of the new arrivals. A woman in high heels took Mom and Dad to JCPenney in Phoenix. She spoke slowly, with exaggerated enunciation.

She said, “This is where we come to buy things like u-ten-sils and tow-els.”

When they got back to the car, my parents looked at each other and laughed.

Even with my father’s training in Phoenix, my parents moved back to Yuma after welding school because no jobs were available in the city. They stayed there for six years after I was born because Dad refused to move away from his homeland for less than a living wage, and in the beginning no one would hire him. Dad worked a series of odd jobs in my earliest childhood, most of them part-time.

Uncle Gene was one of those men who never followed through with the training he received from the Indian Relocation Act, and he made fun of my father for giving in to the man. Uncle Gene was uncompromising, while Dad would do anything to provide for his family. Uncle Gene continued to fight with his fists, while Dad mutated the old physical hubris into an emotional strength. If Dad had spent his boyhood pounding his chest, solitary had given him the ability to remain quiet in the face of difficulty; and keeping one’s head down—being polite to the man when you are secretly seething with anger—is not an easy practice.

James Baldwin wrote, “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.” Dad had larger ambitions for us. He wanted us to grow up, build useful lives, and eschew the poor-me narrative he saw in his friends, whose attitudes resulted in their deaths. We were supposed to grit our teeth and be tough, even when the pain was legitimate. To discuss historic wrongs was risky. People might say we were using those reflections as an excuse for failure.

Gene regarded Dad as a Native version of Uncle Tom, though their rivalry wasn’t something I fully understood until after my uncle died of alcoholism, and my dad’s boss put him on a company plane for Phoenix so he would get back to the reservation in time for the funeral. Returning home after the tribal burial rites, Dad was so despondent about his brother’s death, he drank too much and fell asleep at the gate, missing his flight. It was only after the funeral that Dad began to talk, and I learned to regret the way I had valorized my Uncle Gene.

I was a dumb kid who wanted her dad to go fight the neighbor with a dead dog, in part because I couldn’t make the distinction between physical toughness and emotional resiliency, and in part because I didn’t know how hurt my father was by his brother Gene. My uncle never forgave my father for taking a job at a coal-fired power plant, especially given what happened to their mother. The canyons of the American Southwest contain Hopi healing plants alongside toxic waste. It’s a place where uranium miners and high-pressure welders wait for cancer to claim them. I am talking about environmental illnesses resulting from the coal mines, power plants, uranium mines, and the first atomic bomb explosion at New Mexico’s Trinity Site.

Dad’s mom grew up in the village of Paguate in Laguna Pueblo, a town that sits three miles west of the Jackpile Mine, one of the largest open-pit uranium sites in the world. In the years after Dad’s training as a welder, she contracted a rare form of cancer that attacked her sinus cavity, but she refused chemotherapy or surgery. She wore bandages over the sides of her nose as the cancer ate her cheeks and died without blaming history or the poison that bled into mountain runoff and gathered at the bottom of wells in Paguate.

Dad worked with many Navajo and Hopi men whose children were born with birth defects and whose parents died of cancer. They told him stories about playing on uranium pilings in the desert, never knowing that the small mounds were dangerous. Mom was three years old when the bomb was exploded thirty-six miles from her hometown in Socorro, yet no one in her family knew what the bright light, loud blast, and rattling windows meant. No one knew the nearby Jornada del Muerto Desert was the testing ground for nearly every missile in the Cold War arsenal—the Viking, Hermes, Nike, and others—or that rhesus monkeys were launched into space there, most of them dying when their parachutes failed on the return. Radioactive debris fell from the sky, killing livestock and poisoning crops. The afternoon of the test it rained, but no one warned the people of Socorro not to drink from their cisterns.

Observing Oppenheimer after the blast, physicist Isidor Rabi said, “I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car... his walk was like High Noon.” I close my eyes and imagine the beauty of those arroyos, the red canyons lighting up in the blast. I think of my grandmother suffering, an unwitting victim of the warrior’s arena. I remember my Uncle Gene’s rage and understand all men are seduced by violence, only some have tools that are bigger.

Dad was funneled into an environmentally destructive job due to a government assimilation program, and it pulled us out of poverty. Arizona Public Service had Native American hiring preferences that were part of a contract with the Navajo Nation because the plant was built on their reservation. He ran crews that burned coal in turbines and polluted the sky to make electricity, supplying energy to our televisions and computers. He took the paycheck and brought it home, and I judged him for it for many years. I almost died, I was so depressed, and it was the canyons and arroyos that saved my life. I hiked every day, attempting to reconnect with the sacred, all the while resenting my father because I felt he had ruined the best part of our family legacy.

How can parents decide between being arrested and sending their kids to Indian boarding schools? How can a father decide between his values and a better life for his children? I wish I had been aware, as a teenager, of the suffering my father endured in order to push me ahead. He sacrificed his life for mine, yet I spent many years judging him for his decisions.

My shame about my father’s job, my judgment about his choices, and my desire to turn him into something he wasn’t was all bound up in an impulse to give him the life he should have had, the life I felt he deserved. In my mind, I envisioned a green-grass utopia, and wanted to put him in it. I wanted nothing more than to take away his agency and turn him into the crying Indian in the public service announcement designed to discourage littering. Injustice is when someone privileged like me, someone who has reaped the benefits of electricity and national security, turns around and vilifies a poor indigenous man for taking the only job he had available to him.

I have never seen a Hopi hedge fund manager or Navajo bank owner, and I wonder how I would feel if I did. In the meantime, I pound my desk and tremble as I tell the story of my family’s moral dilemma. I tremble because I fear what environmentalists—our tribal allies and the people I most admire—will think about my father. Will they, too, feel he should have refused to take the job? What does it mean to save the planet? If we kill anything won’t it be ourselves?


About the author

A member of the Yuma Nation, Deborah Taffa is the co-author the documentary DIGADOHI: Lands, Cherokee, and the Trail of Tears; and a producer and writer for the PBS series America from the Ground Up. The recipient of the 2018 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, she teaches at Webster University and Washington University in St. Louis. She is a 2018 A Public Space Fellow.

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