Local borders

In the US when we hear “border” we imagine the militarized US-Mexico border or the calmer border we share with our Canad-“eh”-an brothers.  These are our politically constructed borders, which over time, have converted into social borders as well.  But I’ve begun recently to think that these are only the borders we are most conscious of nationally, and that there are borders among us.

On a weekend trip to Navajo country in Arizona, I picked up the local paper (The Navajo Times) and, browsing, was startled to come across articles about “border cities”, which in my mind, were several hundred miles to the south.  Reading on I learned that these border cities are not the ones along the US-Mexican border, but rather those along the Navajo Nation boundary, which separate Navajo from non-Navajo Americans.

The border I read about, though distinct, struck a chord with the Mex border.  As with the Mexican border, the two sides have a long history of economic and social integration.   There is movement and exchange of goods, people, ideas across the border.  And yet there are layers of privilege and inequality across the línea, marked by the Great Wall where I live, and by a line on the map in Navajo country.  In and around Navajo country, I did not see the border patrol on the prowl for crossers from the other side, but I saw a more subtle, disturbing dehumanization taking place.  On the highway, I was greeted by cartoon images of the “friendly Indian” selling knick knacks, in facilities “with clean restrooms”.  Hundreds of years of rich culture boiled down to marketing propaganda.  Unfortunately as I learned from the same paper there is also more overt inequality.  The Navajo who live in the border cities are often subject to verbal harassment, discrimination in hiring and promotions, and in at least one case, gerrymandering of bus routes and student assignments to keep Navajo children out of the whiter school.

I reminded myself not to feel too sorry.  I met an artisan selling modern interpretations of traditional Navajo art.  He was related to the President of the Navajo Nation and told me, proudly, that the Navajo were improving their schooling system and reclaiming their culture through increased instruction in the Navajo language.  I took a picture of him and felt for a few seconds that I was like so many ignorant gringas seeing this Navajo man as a piece of art, rather than as a person.  I knew this wasn’t the case actually, that I really cared to know, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was reinforcing the line between Anglos and Native Americans.  It was also strange to speak English, in part I think because I am used to being curious south of my border.

Living in the Southwest, I am just starting to become aware of Native American cultures and the issues that they face; poverty, discrimination, dietary problems.  I will probably be writing more on Native Americans as this blog develops.


Native Americans apparently have high hopes for Obama.

The same edition of Navajo Times features letters written by Navajo fifth and sixth graders to President Obama.  Here are some of my favorites because of their poignancy and childhood innocence:

Dear Mr. Obama,

My name is Ian Hunter Burden.  If I was president I would be panicked.  But you don’t look panicked.  I wish there would be world pax.  It means peace.


Ian H. Burden


Dear Mr. Obama,

Hello, my name is Clarence C.  Our school is broke.  Please give us money.  We kids are in need of books.  I would like some new computers and a gym.  We all told everybody to vote for you.  I think we deserve some credit.


Clarence Champagne


Dear Mr. Obama,

My name is Shane Moran.  I am 11 years old.  I would like to ask you a few questions.  For my first question, what will you do about gas prices?

Secondly, what will you do about the second amendment?  Third, what will you do about our troops in Iraq?  Finally, (I know this question is silly but I’ll ask it anyway) are there really aliens in Area 51?


Shane Moran


Dear Mr. Obama,

Hello, my name is Alisa Talor Yazzie.  My maternal clan is Deer Springs, born for Bitter Water, and my paternal clan is Red Bottom clan, born for Towering House.  I am full-blooded Navajo and I am 9 years old.

At my school I voted for you, I wanted you to win.  I was also a princess at my other school but I gave up my crown.

There are a lot of things that are happening in my life.  My uncle has kidney failure on both kidneys, but he’ll be all right, won’t he?  I hope so.

I just wanted to say hi, and I hope I will be able to see you once.  When I get a new phone I will tell you my number.


Alisa Yazzie


1 Comment

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One response to “Local borders

  1. Utpal

    Something about the photography issue really strikes a chord with me. Is there EVER a decent way to photograph people we’ve just met when there are such overriding social inequalities?

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