In the late 1990s I found myself in an incredible new environment, one that was completely foreign, strange and marvellous. I became a student teacher at a school for Navaho children on a reservation in Crownpoint, New Mexico. This was literally and metaphorically a very long way from my childhood near Niagara in Canada. Crownpoint was at a very high elevation and the first disorientation was shortness of breath, sore ears and energy which depleted very rapidly. I became acclimatised after about six weeks, but I never got used to the fascinating and mysterious world of the Navaho children.
I was told that you could live in this part of New Mexico for twenty years and still not understand the complexity of the history and culture in this region of the United States. I never anticipated such a level of culture shock in North America. However, it was challenging and exhilarating, and it was almost like stepping out of a spacecraft onto an alien planet. I was up for the adventure. I taught in a two-room school house on a compound in the middle of the desert. The children called me ‘Miss Monique’ because my Dutch surname (Sliedrecht) was rather difficult. The children were reserved but very gentle and creativity ran very deep in their own heritage. Many of them were still tied to the Navaho ways of life, which included visits from the tribal Medicine Man and they followed numerous rituals and traditions. My roommates were a Navaho student nurse and a fellow teacher from Michigan.
Perhaps the experiences I cherish most are going to the markets and seeing the turquoise and silver jewellery and encountering the delights of the Navaho cuisine. The landscape still sings in my soul, especially the long hikes to the mesa with the red sandstone, so often shaped by wild elements. Those strange and surreal shapes come back to me in memory.
This was truly a new era of my life, so far removed from everything I knew, but a gateway to new revelations, new openness, and a new appreciation for the immense variety of cultures and people in North America.
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