Coreen Barbone could not help but notice the woman, her hands in a dance of motion. Or the boy. He just kept staring at those hands.
The woman who awed Barbone was an American Sign Language interpreter. She used her hands to shatter the silence of a world without sound. Barbone decided she wanted to do that, too.
Today, more than a decade later, Barbone indeed is an interpreter, the first American Indian to graduate from Santa Fe Community College's interpreting program, one of about 10 Indian interpreters in the country. She further distinguishes herself with her trilingual ability -- English, Navajo and American Sign Language.
"That was the first time I'd ever seen anything like that, and I was thinking, 'How do you communicate with a deaf person?' " Barbone said, recalling that day when she saw the woman and the boy. "'How do they make it in the world?'"
For deaf and hard-of-hearing Indians, Barbone is helping fill what Damara Paris, president of the Intertribal Deaf Council, describes as a desperate need.
"We do need more interpreters because of the fact that our culture is unique, and the more knowledge an interpreter has about a culture, the more efficient they can be at communicating the dialogue," Paris said during a telephone interview relayed through an interpreter.
Barbone is headed to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where her Santa Fe instructors say she will be the first American Indian in the university's interpretation program. There she hopes to earn her bachelor's degree and go on to graduate studies.
Her journey from her childhood home near in Round Cedar Ranch, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation to Little Rock has been about more than learning a new language.
It has been about the difficult separation from her close-knit Navajo family, one she says helped put her through boarding school with money from her mother and grandmother's rug-weaving and arts and crafts. It has been about going from a reservation life she loved -- a land of "dirt roads and stop signs and no street names or stop lights" where her grandparents herded sheep -- to urban New Mexico.
"I knew one day I had to leave home, and I had to know what the outside world knew. And I thought, 'How would I function without my family and off the reservation?' It's two different worlds," she said.
That difficult road began the night she saw the boy in the gymnasium.
Her goal, she said, is not only to help deaf Indians and others communicate with the hearing but to educate the hearing world about the deaf community, especially within her own culture.
"It's kind of like a subject that has been pushed aside" on the reservation, she said.
Barbone started with library books about sign language. While attending boarding school in Peoria, Ariz., she performed a song in sign language after learning the movements by outlining her hand on tracing paper and taping up the pages in her room.
During the performance, "I had this awesome feeling come over me like I was meant to do this."
With money from summer jobs and scholarships and an offer to live with her dad in Albuquerque, Barbone enrolled in Santa Fe Community College's program three years ago.
"From day one, Coreen was determined to finish the program, however long it would take," said Ralph Sedano, coordinator of the college's interpretation program and an American Sign Language instructor. "She acknowledged that first day there would be major challenges to overcome. Our curriculum, for one, is not American Indian-friendly but very much rooted in the Anglo American deaf community and language traditions."
Sedano, who is deaf and communicated through e-mail, said Barbone had to deal with how American Sign Language concepts differed from her own cultural beliefs.
"There are some of the belief systems that don't always translate well," Paris said. "If you're using ASL concepts, for example, the concept of a medicine man in the Native American culture is far more spiritual. An interpreter who is not experienced in the culture might use the sign 'medicine,' as in doctor, but a Native American interpreter would know to use the sign in a spiritual context."
There is also the comfort level Barbone will bring when interpreting for deaf Navajos and other American Indians.
Barbone is unsure about her eventual career destination and is focusing for now on continuing her education.