by Beth Drechsel
My husband says, “You’ll only meet so many people in life. You might as well be friends with as many who will let you.” Frankly, it amazes me how many people have let me! Some are kindred spirits, others have taken a bit more effort. Some I wouldn’t have chosen at all, but God chose them for me, and I’m so glad He did. I have friends of different religions and cultures, and those possessing a different worldview. I have friends who are conservative and those who are liberal. And some friends have a different ethnicity than I do. My friends are brown and black, Chinese and Filipino, Hispanic and Native American.
It didn’t start out that way. During my early years I was distrustful of others. I grew up at Immanuel Mission, a three-room elementary school in northern Arizona in the proud heart of Navajo Land, where my father was the principal and my mother the school cook. I understood much of the Navajo language and culture, but as one of just a handful of white kids I suffered the pain of racial discrimination, which included both verbal and physical abuse. It dug a deep chip in my pale-skin shoulder.
I attended high school sixty-five miles east of my home, across the New Mexico state-line, a school with over 500 students, less than fifty of whom were Anglo. It was the 1970’s during the American Indian Movement, and along with the struggle for Native American rights came a justified eruption of long-simmering resentment against the white establishment, and Anglos in general.
I was called “honky” and though at Shiprock High School I had white friends, they griped that I sometimes acted too Indian. My best friend was Judy, a town Navajo who didn’t fit with the Rez Indians, the ones who were called “johns,” because their homes lacked indoor plumbing. Judy’s highly educated and successful parents hadn’t taught her the native language or the customs. She was called “apple”, red-fleshed on the outside but white just under the skin. Whatever names we students called each other—honky, john, or apple—the labels were hurtful, separating us from each other.
My white friends reluctantly included Judy when she was with me. Their prejudice showed in the way they’d save us both a spot in the lunch line if she was with me but not if she was alone, how they’d invite me to parties but never include her, and how under their breath they called her “squaw.” One such “friend” gave me an ultimatum: “You can be my friend if you ditch Judy.” It infuriated me, but who was I to judge? I could hardly expect others to act any better than I did. I was angry at the prejudice of the Anglo kids. I was mad at the Navajo kids, too. Most of all, I struggled with my own feelings. It was shocking to discover that racism was much bigger than how I was treated. It was painful to learn that it came in all colors and that it seethed under my own skin.
In one way, all of us were the same. We all lived with an undercurrent of fear. We heard news stories filled with accounts of sit-ins and walkouts, of riots and assaults, and the killings at Wounded Knee. The bigotry exploded in Farmington, the town just east of Shiprock, where a group of white teens murdered three homeless Navajo men. And then it came closer when a Navajo classmate with a white boyfriend was beaten so badly by native boys that she ended up in the hospital.
There were days when the high school principal, who was Navajo, phoned my dad to warn that the atmosphere on campus was too volatile and he couldn’t guarantee the white students’ safety. As a result, we stayed home a day or two. When I once again stepped off the bus and on to a campus simmering with tension, it was a comfort that Judy was there to claim me, but I worried when she had to attend school on days that all the white students were absent. Judy bobbed in that brown pool like an apple because she was treated as an outsider – not Native American enough.
Many days we faced bullying and felt the arrow-point of words – curse words and racial slurs in English and Navajo. Judy didn’t catch the Navajo barbs and insisted that I interpret for her. When I explained, her dark eyes would spark with anger, and she’d fire a witty observation my way. In the next moment, we’d be giggling the way teenage girls do, and the wound was soothed a bit.
But we never forgot for a moment that words could turn to action. Many times over those years I was physically assaulted on the long bus ride to or from school. Once in a darkened hallway, a Navajo student put a knife to my throat and growled, “White bitch!” I never reported any of the incidents. In fact, Judy and I rarely discussed them. We already knew that it wasn’t safe being who we were, and we were learning together we lived in a world much bigger than ourselves that wasn’t safe for anyone, no matter what their skin color.
I wouldn’t be the person I am today, or have the variety of friends that I do, if it hadn’t been for Judy. We were both too white for the Navajo world, and too Navajo for the white, and we bonded over the similarity of those differences. Her friendship helped me begin letting go of my distrust of others. With Judy I learned that friendship could be more than skin-deep and that I could be friends with anyone who would let me.
Beth Drechsel is a homemaker and gardener living in Flora Vista, New Mexico. She is happily married to her husband, Paul, and they have two adult sons. She finds joy in her simple life and in her relationships.