Jim Kristofic's biographical essays detail his life as a white kid in the Navajo Nation

The title of this collection of linked essays—about a smart, sensitive white boy growing up in the Navajo Nation in the 1980s and '90s—is a partial answer to a question that the young author is asked whenever someone learns about his unique childhood: Are you an Indian?

As Jim Kristofic explains in his charming new memoir, that question is typically attended by other seemingly ridiculous queries from a dominant culture that still, after hundreds of years, knows very little about the American Indians in its midst. One of the most common goes something like: Do Navajos wear moccasins? No, Kristofic usually answers, most Navajos wear Nikes.

And there, in a very memorable phrase, is a simple but largely unknown truth about the inhabitants of the vast, forbidding and beautiful "Rez," a huge red-dirt swath of which stretches across northeastern Arizona: They are just like us, except when they are not.

Kristofic, a high school teacher and oral historian born in 1982, was uprooted from his life in urban Pittsburgh by a mother who has a bit of an Indian fetish. She's one of those Anglos who is fascinated by Native American culture, history and art, but she took it a bit further than most. Running from a failed relationship with a violent drunk, she secured a job as a nursing supervisor at a Navajo-run hospital in Ganado, Ariz., a tiny reservation town that is best known for being the site of the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site.

Kristofic started second-grade on the reservation as the only non-Navajo in his class. For several years, he faced daily, violent attacks from Navajo boys and girls who, like pretty much all other Homo sapiens, found picking on the minority to be a fun and socially popular activity. Kristofic's detailed—if sometimes aesthetically overheated—descriptions of the beatings and teasing he took are illuminating in that they provide a reminder, if one were needed, that racism is not an exclusively white sin.

Another particularly fascinating observation, among many in Kristofic's confident first book (he has also published work in the Navajo Times, Arizona Highways and High Country News), involves the cultural confusion that began to overtake Navajo youth in the 1990s, when gang membership and violence began to rise, and wannabes stalked the dirt streets of Ganado.

These kids "were part of that new generation of Navajos," Kristofic writes. "The Navajos who would not be Navajos. The Navajos who wanted to be black, who wanted to be Mexican, who dressed like a South Side Chicago teenager or a Compton native. I never knew if it was a way for them to feel strong and united with other minorities that fed on the same sense of white injustice. Or whether it was armor for some war they were still determined to wage against Anglos. Or against themselves."

There were many moments in Kristofic's years living on the reservation that could have occurred nowhere else—like running from skinwalkers (witchcraft, and the fear of it, is still very much a part of daily life on the reservation) through a darkened wash beside his home in Ganado, or standing in a group and watching a middle school teacher slaughter a sheep in the gym.

Mostly, though, Kristofic seems to have had a typical rural upbringing (save for the racial beatings). He realizes, however, that he is subtly different from other Anglo kids his age when his family moves off the reservation to Page; only then does he realize how much Navajo spirit has seeped into him. Part of this has to do with the fact that his mother had married a Navajo man and had given Kristofic two Navajo siblings.

There's no going back, he soon realizes; he will always be in-between. He eventually embraces this reality and learns to use it to set himself apart from the upper-middle-class white kids he meets at an Eastern college.

It is, perhaps, the land itself that seeped into him.

"Any time I turned to the Anglo culture for answers, some deeper pattern tried to pull me back to the (Navajo) beliefs," Kristofic writes. "And no matter how far away I had tried to put the Rez from me, the Rez was still there. I dreamed of its cliffs and cottonwoods, wrote poetry in my creative-writing classes of its washes and its mesas, of the smell of sagebrush and burning juniper, and the clear stars at night."

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