Story and photos by KATHRYN JONES
Andrea Hales sits in her cozy living room next to her husband, Mark. They are surrounded by Navajo and Samoan art and bookshelves filled with pictures and other memorabilia. The artwork and collections give visitors a sense of another time, unspoiled, open and free.
Hales, a Navajo who lives in West Valley City, works for the board of regents in Salt Lake City; Mark, who is white, is a divorce attorney working for a small law firm in the same city.
Andrea says she is eager to enjoy many of the Navajo traditions she didn’t learn growing up, and Mark is in agreement. He looks forward to sharing in the same traditions.
“Our Anglos have no culture,” he says, “so it’s fun to explore a culture that does.”
For the couple, learning about culture has become a way of understanding each other better. Seeing various Native American exhibits, attending dance programs, going to concerts where Native American music is played; doing whatever they can to keep Native American life vivid and open in their lives seems almost as important as eating.
Unless the eating includes Navajo fry bread.
“My mother has the recipe in her head,” Hales says. She admits she has tried her mom’s recipe with less than favorable results. Mark believes he would be able to put the ingredients together if only he had the recipe, though he admits he didn’t think much about traditional things such as fry bread until after he lived in American Samoa for a time.
The two have been married since May. Hales says this was a surprise to her; not that she’d marry, but that she’d end up with a white man. The two appear to be happy. And although they say they haven’t personally experienced any racism, Hales admits this may be because she doesn’t look Native American to most people.
“My father, Ralph, is white. My mom, Loretta, is Navajo…My mom’s family was not very welcoming to dad,” she says.
Her grandmother was raised in the “traditional way of life.” Her grandfather, on the other hand, was part white and part Navajo.
“That side of the family really helped” because the family understood both cultures, says Loretta Worthen, Hales’ mother, in a telephone interview.
Still, things were not always easy for Hales.
When she was about 12, she says she remembers the difficulties in going to the reservation with her siblings, and staying behind when her mother went to see Alice, the medicine woman.
Hales says her mom wouldn’t invite her inside, and that she was all right with that. “I was uncomfortable,” she says, describing the woman as “creepy.” Though Hales believes her mother may have discontinued in the tradition of seeing the medicine woman, Worthen says that she doesn’t visit Alice anymore.
As for Hales, she tries not to dwell on this part of her past, and focuses on other aspects of her relationship with her mother.
“I’m unique, that’s something mom wanted to make sure I knew,” she says.
Hales seems confident about that. She talks about speaking up when it was simply easier not to and of feeling awkward in places she expected to feel comfortable in. She shares some of the things she has learned, and puts a positive spin on everything, as if there is simply no other way to think about it.
But Hales is also a realist. She tries to learn from all aspects of her life, even those that are painful. When she was attending Brigham Young University, for example, some friends on campus began discussing Native American stereotypes as if they were a reality. Hales says this angered her. She couldn’t believe her friends would speak about her people in such a derogatory way. Still, she continued to attend school.
And then she reached a turning point.
Though Hales received various Native American scholarships for her college education, she says she initially just wanted “to take the money,” and be done with it. But working at the multicultural office on campus, she felt like she should do something for other Native Americans who were struggling at school. “What started with guilt helped me to learn about my heritage. I wanted to give back what I’d been given.”
But that’s not all.
“I felt a tug,” she says, “and learned respect for both cultures.”
After graduation and following a 10-week stint as an intern in Washington, D.C., Hales was hired by the Navajo Nation Washington office to assist with Native Americans and their issues, but quickly ran into new difficulties.
“I wasn’t Navajo enough,” she says.
The office staff treated her fairly, but those she was trying to help “really had a hard thing” for her. Ten months later she quit.
“Native Americans didn’t trust me,” Hales says. “They wouldn’t talk to me. I didn’t know the language and I was a woman.”
The respect of her Native American culture is something Hales never wants to lose, despite the challenges of the past, however. And her home speaks volumes.
A wedding vase made of clay sits on her bookshelf; the vase with two spouts represents the bond between husband and wife that is never to be broken. Various additional treasures follow: a Sioux doll, a dream catcher, a Navajo sand painting, a clock given to Hales by her mother who first received it from her sister. Even the paintings above the couch speak of the love she has for Native American people.
“Mom had these in the hallway growing up,” Hales says. “I was at her home [years later] and found them in the garbage.”
Hales says she just couldn’t give them up and so she brought them home.
Hales is also proud of the children’s book she created at Brigham Young University where she wrote the text of her story in English on one side of the page and the Navajo language on the other, of the corn saint given to her by her grandfather, and the traditional arrow she says she once took off the wall to cut a tomato with when a knife couldn’t be found.
Hales’ next project is to conquer her mother’s fry bread recipe, now that she has finally shared the closely guarded secret.
Loretta’s Fry Bread*
4 cups flour (Blue Bird flour is best)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
*All measures are approximate.
In a large bowl, mix all ingredients. Add hot water a little at a time and knead dough until it is smooth and soft. Pinch a portion off and make it thin like piecrust. Place in hot shortening for frying. If the portion of dough drops to the bottom of the pan and browns fast, the oil is ready. Brown fry bread on edges, turn over, and brown on opposite side. When removing from oil, let fry bread drip a little over the pan before setting on paper towel to cool. Top with whatever condiments you wish.