In "Edge of the Rez," member station KNAU probes American Indian identity. The series profiles American Indians and non-Indians who live in northern Arizona communities that border the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
Frank Armao remembers the night before he began working as a doctor in Winslow, Ariz., a reservation border town that sits on historic Route 66. He "checked into some seedy hotel ... with sand blowing under the door." Armao, who grew up in Philadelphia, came to Winslow as part of a U.S. Public Health Service scholarship after medical school. He had hoped to land a job on the Navajo reservation, but this was a close as he could get.
Thirty years later, he's still in Winslow. He married a Navajo woman in 1985.
Frank's wife, Fena, was born on the nearby Navajo reservation and moved to Winslow when she was 6 years old because her mother wanted her to attend school there.
"I was fortunate enough to have a great teacher," Fena Armao says. "She was real patient with me and taught me English."
Frank met Fena playing bastetball during his first year in town.
"She was a very good basketball player," he says. "I was not."
Together, Frank and Fena have learned to negotiate the complicated cultural terrain of a border town. The day after their first child was born, Armao came to the clinic where his wife was recuperating.
"She was basically sleeping there, but she had rubbed meconium, the baby's first stool … into her face."
Armao thought that his wife had contracted some strange, blotchy disease. But she was only performing a Navajo custom. His wife believed that putting the first "poop of the baby" on her face would eliminate discoloration that can occur on the skin of a new mother.
"When I seemed a little quizzical," says Frank Armao, "she reminded me that all through her pregnancy, she would come into our place and we would send her down to the restroom to urinate in a cup … I think that's kind of a paradigm for the whole process of cultures trying to learn from each other and accept some of our idiosyncrasies, if you will."
The three Armao children have grown up in Winslow, where half of the student population is American Indian, mostly Navajo. While the children definitely view themselves as Navajo, says Frank, he regrets that they don't participate more in tribal customs and traditions. Fena says that members of her generation, who grew up on the reservation, often deal with an inner tug of war "because we all have the memory of the Long Walk." She made the decision to spare her children the internal struggle that comes from living in two worlds.