Mom and I breathed deeply four times in the cool shadow of Table Mesa. In the distance, a worn road led southward through the Navajo reservation and northward to Shiprock, New Mexico. The white tips of Dibe Nitsaa, Mount Hesperus, the sacred mountain of the North, whispered above. We stretched our arms into a sky as turquoise as the stone in the necklace Mom made me. Father Sky. Swollen gray clouds drifted slowly by. Then we folded ourselves in two; our fingertips brushed the red soil swirling about our feet. Mother Earth. Mom’s eyes remained closed as she inhaled one more time and brought her arms to her chest, the way she normally embraced me with all her might. I wanted to melt there but instead I stood awkwardly beside her, trying to mime a graceful pattern of arm and leg movements that resembled Tai Chi. We faced East (thinking), then South (planning), West (living), and North (wisdom).
Her short black hair settled into a curly halo around her beautiful round face, now unbelievably serene compared to moments earlier when she had slammed her hand-carved weaving fork on the table and said, “Your Rez Mom sucks at this.”
“Me, too,” I’d confessed. Our placemat-sized rugs continued to turn into hourglass shapes, no matter how many times we warned each other to think “loose.”
A few feet away from our meditation, five Caucasian women sat Indian style on tarps or folded Pendleton blankets. Before them, their looms displayed nearly finished rugs, which would soon win awards. Mothers, wives, grandmothers—all of them set aside these roles for five days to camp with no electricity or water on Master Weaver Sarah Natani’s ranch. The desert wind tangled wisps of blond and sandy brown hair loose from traditional Navajo [End Page 37] buns at the base of their necks. The sun baked their skin. Stray dogs dozed on their laps. Ants about the length of fingernails scuttled between their toes. Odors of sheep and llama dung wafted from the corrals a few feet away. But they didn’t care. They appeared more authentic as Navajo weavers than Mom and I, weaving comfortably air-conditioned within the Natani home. And then, because we stayed at a hotel for the sake of my two-year-old daughter who spent our class time in a Shiprock daycare, we rolled in late every morning with cups of Starbucks steaming in our hands.
I wondered what the other weavers thought about us, especially when Mom, who was the only student of Navajo heritage, had to weave with rubber gloves because the yarn irritated her skin. Mostly, they kept a respectful distance, maybe because we called Sarah Natani, Shinaali’ (paternal Grandmother). Mom’s paternal grandfather’s clan, Bit’ahni or Folded Arms People, is a sister clan to Sarah Natani’s maternal clan, Hooghan lani or Many Hogans.
Everyone probably thought I was Navajo too, because I shared Mom’s skin and hair color.
My expression of K’é (a Navajo tradition of introducing oneself through kinship terms), which I usually stumbled through clumsily, goes something like this: “I was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Auxilia Chow of Shanghai, China, and John Hsu of Anhui, China. My Chinese name means Fragrant Grass. Ursula Knoki-Wilson of the Táchii’nii, or Red-Running-into-Water People, Clan adopted me after Mā Ma died of liver cancer. My Navajo name means Journey with Caring or Journey to Bring out Gifts.”
The hot desert air seared my lungs and I began to sputter. Mom winked at me and threw her hands into a sky that was supposed to swallow our sorrows, but I couldn’t concentrate. No matter how much Mom loved me like the daughter she never had and tried to caulk the cracks in my grieving heart, I have always felt untethered. I could relate to something Shinaali’ Sarah’s best student had said when she refused a Navajo man’s commission to weave a Navajo rug for him: “Oh no! I’m white. I can’t. It’s not right.”
Shinaali’ Sarah was sitting in front of...