By Leah Gaush
My skin was white. It was always white. White when I sat in class. White when I played in the cul-de-sac after school. White when I stood to sing in church. White when we went on family vacations. I saw it as white, and I knew it as white. White until one summer when I was nine, a bunch of us packed into a rental car and did some midnight off-roading in the middle of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. This was my first time experiencing the rez–my first time encountering the non-white parts of me. My grandpa, Chee, was at the wheel, and my mother, siblings, aunt, and uncle were stacked on top of each other in the back. Chee owned land on the rez he wanted to show us, and the “roadmap” there only existed in his 70-year-old mind. And so we found ourselves bouncing violently against the walls of a rental car, our heads like pinballs and our insides tossed like salads. Around these trees, just past this mountain, I could hear Chee muttering from the front seat in a mixture of English and Navajo. His memory must’ve been some miracle because it was just short of pitch-black outside, and I certainly couldn’t see a thing.
Beside me, my sister lay asleep, her little head collecting bruise after bruise from hitting the side console. In the morning, we examined our bruises in the light of the desert sun and stopped at a lonely looking trailer for breakfast. The building was hardly a building at all, its sun-bleached blue paint appearing white against the reddish-brown of the rest of the landscape. It was so dilapidated, I would’ve thought it was abandoned if it weren’t for the dogs and sheep whose eyes followed us as we approached the front door. I was prepared to meet a total stranger, but Chee reassured us, “Everyone is family here. They will feed us.” The lonely blue trailer turned out to be my great-great-uncle Montoya’s house. Chee was delighted as we stepped inside and he introduced us all. Montoya was older than Chee and it showed in his face, as wrinkled as a raisin. I noticed he shared Chee’s eyes in the way they disappeared when he smiled. My eyes did that too. His skin was Chee’s same shade of nutmeg and his hands the same roughness. Montoya fed us breakfast from the cans in his cupboard and looked at my white skin from under a World War II veteran’s cap. It occurred to me that he hadn’t known I existed until today.
“We’re almost there,” announced Chee after we said goodbye to Montoya and piled back into the car. Clouds of dust flew into the air as we slammed the doors shut. In the daylight, there was more to see outside that I hadn’t imagined in the dark the night before. I was on another planet, as foreign and red as Mars. And yet, it seemed like home in the way Chee squinted to scan the landscape. Sagebrush and sweetgrass dotted the flatness, an occasional tree or cactus rising above the low shrubbery. In the distance, mesas ruled the horizon, defining its lines and natural geometry. The air was dry, and I could feel dust layering itself inside my nostrils with every breath I took. Heat rested on my forearms and the tops of my feet. It was different from the coastal humidity I was used to, but it was comforting all the same.
When we finally arrived on Chee’s land, I was surprised at how he could distinguish it from the other swathes of desert we had traveled across. Aside from an occasional hill or small tree, nothing really served as a landmark. All eight of us clambered out of the car, eager to stretch our legs and tie up our hair. My brother scratched his arms, and my mother yawned. “Where’s the house?” she asked Chee. We had come to see his land and his house, but there was nothing here. “Eiyaa,” he pointed at the ground a few yards away where three concrete steps lay half-buried in the dirt. Surrounding them, Chee walked quietly around an invisible perimeter of what used to be a hooghan, a Navajo mud house. I followed behind him in my little brown flip-flops, tracing the ghost of a line in the sand.
Here, Chee’s skin looked browner than ever. The wind carried his voice to us, “This is Glenna’s hooghan.” His mother’s house. My great-grandmother’s house. The one Chee had grown up in. Or what was left of it. I sat down on the steps, imagining for a moment what used to be there. I had only ever seen pictures of hooghans in books. They were round-like, smooth, and sturdy. I still had relatives that lived in them, but it was far less common ever since the US government had come and built HUD houses and trailers they deemed “more sustainable.” If Glenna’s hooghan walls were still standing, maybe Chee would’ve shown us where he slept, where he cooked over the fire, where he strung up his horses, or where he saw his sister Annie being born.
Or maybe not. My mother always told us not to ask Chee any questions about where he was from. “It hurts him to think about,” she would say. “A lot of bad things happened to him on the reservation.” But I knew a few things from years of eavesdropping. Like how Chee hunted rabbits so he and his brothers could eat. And how the other rez kids had poisoned his beloved horses out of jealousy. And how he was sent miles away when he was young to care for his uncle —who ended up dying in front of his 10-year-old eyes.
I felt dirt collect on my eyelashes and I blinked. It was hard to understand the depth of suffering that my grandpa had gone through here. On these very steps. In this very hooghan that was now gone. On this very dirt, deep down in the earth. The feelings of the day caught up with me: the fatigue, the strangeness, the wonder, the pain, the peace. It wasn’t like the normal sensory processing you feel on a family vacation. It was like all of Chee’s memories that had lain dormant in my body were just now waking up, rubbing the sleep from their eyes and starting to swim through my veins. He had passed down his entire life to me, from the top of my brown-haired head to the soles of my sand-covered feet to the color of my Native-born skin. It was far too much for my nine-year-old body to experience. Generational trauma, people call it nowadays. Montoya felt it. Glenna felt it. Chee felt it. My mother felt it. They felt it all the time. As I sat on my great-grandma’s front steps, I felt it for the first time. And it changed the way I thought of myself. My skin had always been white. White, until that day when I was nine on Chee’s land and I saw my skin become brown. It’s gotten browner every day since.