Edge of the Rez: A Philly Husband, a Navajo Wife

Frank and Fena Armao i i

Frank and Fena Armao live in Winslow, Ariz., a town of about 10,000 that borders the Navajo reservation. Shannon Rhoades, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Shannon Rhoades, NPR
Frank and Fena Armao

Frank and Fena Armao with daughter Shandiin, 10. The family lives in Winslow, Arizona, a town of about 10,000 with historic Route 66 running right through its center.

Shannon Rhoades, NPR
Downtown Winslow, Ariz. i i

Downtown Winslow. Historic Route 66 runs through the center of town. Dan Lutzick hide caption

itoggle caption Dan Lutzick
Downtown Winslow, Ariz.

Downtown Winslow. Historic Route 66 runs through the center of town.

Dan Lutzick

A Hotel Defies the Odds

"Nobody believed [La Posada Hotel] could be saved," says Allan Affeldt, who came to Winslow, Ariz., with his wife, Tina Mion, to do just that. It seemed improbable that a first-class hotel could thrive in a border town whose streets were chockablock with so-called "drunk bars," catering to American Indians who drove in from liquor-free reservations. Affeldt and Mion did succeed in restoring the 1929 hotel, which was built for the Santa Fe Railroad. As the mayor of Winslow, Affeldt now tackles the issue of alcoholism by citing bars for violating liquor license terms and by pushing for a detox center.

Allan Affeldt, the mayor of Winslow, and Tina Mion i i

Hotel saviors: Winslow mayor Allan Affeldt, his wife, artist, Tina Mion, and her dog, Needles, on the grounds of La Posada. Dan Lutzick hide caption

itoggle caption Dan Lutzick
Allan Affeldt, the mayor of Winslow, and Tina Mion

Hotel saviors: Winslow mayor Allan Affeldt, his wife, artist, Tina Mion, and her dog, Needles, on the grounds of La Posada.

Dan Lutzick
La Posada Hotel i i

Shuttered from 1957 to 1997, La Posada Hotel is now back in the business of pampering guests. Dan Lutzick hide caption

itoggle caption Dan Lutzick
La Posada Hotel

Shuttered from 1957 to 1997, La Posada Hotel is now back in the business of pampering guests.

Dan Lutzick

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.

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