At Sagebrush, snow storms, civil rights and Vietnam didn’t matter as much as the land itself

By Betty Reid

Flock belonging to Navajo shepherds foraging in deep snow of severe winter. (Ralph Crane/Life magazine, 1967.)

Flock belonging to Navajo shepherds foraging in deep snow of severe winter. (Ralph Crane/Life magazine, 1967.)

I weep when I dream about Sagebrush, a place known to my Navajo family as Tsaa Tah.

While the country fought about civil rights and the Vietnam War, my family, the Blackwood Streak and Bitter Water clans, lived in hogans made of stone, canvas tents and a house built by my father at Sagebrush. Our winter sheep camp in the arroyo cradled three flocks of sheep next to a corral made of limestone. Sage grew tall in the deep ravines. Shorter sage covered the mesas and rock outcroppings. Trees were nonexistent, except for a lone juniper every few miles.

My family held tight to their earth-based faith and strove to live in harmony with the land. But sometimes we had to fight the elements to keep our animals and ourselves alive.

In the winter of 1967, a giant snowstorm hit the Navajo Nation and buried Sagebrush and my family. Then-Navajo leader Raymond Nakai called it the “worst weather disaster in modern Navajo history.” While my relatives sat marooned at Sagebrush, I was a 9-year-old second grader stuck at Tuba City Boarding School, a military-style residential hall and elementary school.

I had barely learned to recognize shapes — what the teachers called numbers –and utter a few words in English. I lived in TC-7, a tan building with an orange belly.

When the winter holidays arrived, the entire campus shut down and the Navajo children went home for the break. So on the Friday before the Christmas holiday, I joined friends near th picture window of the TC-7 living room, anxious to spot our parents walking into our dorm.

I longed for home. The faint scent of sage, greasy mohair, wet earth and human sweat screamed “home” to me. I especially missed my father’s dusty black felt cowboy hat with the sliver band and his slight smile when he teased me about my mud-cover face after I played hard in the wash.

The late Willie Longreed Sr.

The late Willie Longreed Sr.

“Asdza binii Likizh,” he would say affectionately, meaning “the Woman with grime splattered on her face.”

I also missed the feel of my mother’s layered velvet shirt pinned together right below her chin with a large safety-pin and the three bobby pins she place at the nap opening of her shirt. And when I need my nose cleaned, my mother would use the tip of long calico skirt and called me, “yuhzhee,” which meant “A Twig of a Girl” or “Shorty” in Navajo.

But going home meant breaking ties with Tuba City Boarding School and its running water, warm bunk beds, clean sheets, fleece pajamas and three square meals. It meant leaving ABCs and 1,2,3 lessons and the church lessons—a confusing instruction in religion for me because my Navajo faith believes in the power of Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Sagebrush beckoned my little heart, as the parents of my friends trudged into the dorm and signed them out. My little eyes strained to imagine my parents walking up the concrete basketball court.

Snow began to fall. The heavens seemed to explode in giant flakes that swirled and danced and blinded me by the window. Mrs. Green, our residential aide, ordered us to “get into the wings,” sit down in rows, knees flush with the straight lines of the square linoleum floors and arms folded across the chest. She ordered us to sing jolly Christmas songs.

Regimented life at the Tuba City Boarding School in its early years.

Regimented life at the Tuba City Boarding School in its early years.

We bellowed holiday carols without understanding their significance until our throats hurt. When Mrs. Green took a break, we changed the English lyrics to “Up on the Housetop” to words in Navajo about an amusing imaginary elderly white-haired grandfather falling head-first into a stove pipe, for our hogans and canvas tents lacked chimneys. When Mrs. Green reappeared, we quickly switched back to English.

No one came to pick me up that Friday or the next day or the next as the snowdrifts collected below the large picture window.

I felt abandoned. I conjured explanations. Maybe my father forgot me. Maybe he made a detour to a Yeibichei dance, the nine-day Nightway healing ceremony common in winter. He was a dancer. Maybe no one reminded my aunt or my dad to fill up the gas tank at Gap Trading Post.

My tears fell as I watched snow blanket the playground. No sign of my father.

The days seemed like months. One morning, I quit my vigil at the window and started an assigned chore of buffing the floor with the monster of a polisher with its long cord and puffed-up belly bag.

Suddenly, I saw a movement out of corner of my eye. Was that a glimpse of my father’s hat? I flung the buffer aside as the hat moved and the silver band emerged. It was Dad!

An electric shot of happiness raced through me. I ran and collected my jacket and stood by my father, who I thought was tall and handsome. I noticed he wore the black rubber garden boots lined with plastic bags that had held the powdered milk given to my family by the U.S. government. He looked exhausted.

I was going home to Sagebrush. When I reached my aunt’s black GMC truck, the cab was full. My cousins were wrapped in layers of quilts and tucked into the truck bed like a can of packed sardines.

We left the paved road less than a mile past The Gap Trading Post. The truck crawled up a ridge and traveled west near the confluence of the meandering Little Colorado River and the roaring Colorado River. We made our way through the snow to my late maternal Grandmother Jane’s Hogan, which my family called the “Flying Hogan.”

My father checked the chains on the tires for the descent into a deep ravine that entered Sagebrush from the east side. That dirt road was clogged with snowdrifts. Everything was covered in a white blanket, and an eerie silence hung in the air, broken only by the HUM of the truck’s engine.

It took all day to reach Sagebrush camp.

The next day, I learned why my family was late picking me up at the board school. They were buried in snow.

Snow powdered every inch of Sagebrush. A thick fog cloaked the camp, and the sheep had not grazed in days.

My parents, my brother Eisenhower and my two cousins had earlier waded two miles through hi-dip snow over and down hills to find a clearing to send a distress signal. Through the portable radio, Chairman Nakai said he would send a bulldozer if the isolated sheepherders would walk to the nearest land clearing or main road, build a fire and use a mirror to signal the moving machine.

But the bulldozer never came and the group returned to Sagebrush. Then a transport plane appeared, looped around the camp, found a clearing and dropped bales of hay. My relatives came out of their homes and watched. For too long, they had watched snow fall out of the sky. This time it was hay.

My Aunt Jeanette and Late Grandmother Edith and my father watched as the dry, square alfalfa exploded after hitting the snow. My father, intending to gather the hay in a blanket and deliver it to the flock, began to trek to the clearing.

Suddenly, another aircraft that made loud clapping sounds appeared out of the western arroyo. It startled my father. The downdraft of the helicopter spun him, and the blanket blew away.

Navajo shepherds hard hit by snow storm stamped out a sign requesting food & hay in 1967. (Ralph Crane, Life magazine.)

Navajo shepherds hard hit by snow storm stamped out a sign requesting food & hay in 1967. (Ralph Crane, Life magazine.)

Grandmother Edith hollered at my father, “Tsi’biyaa’ anilyed,” or “Run under the rock ledge,” as the helicopter circled above the camp. The Sagebrush arroyo had caves and rocks that looked like awnings. Jeanette, now in her 80s, laughed about that memory.

The helicopter dropped food rations and canned food in burlap sacks.

Armed with shovels, my father, brothers and cousins scooped a well-defined path up a hill south of our camp and then onto Sagebrush. Sheep and goats were unleashed on the trail days later.

My cousin, then 19, today remembers the cold that followed the storm. It was so cold that when the flock moved away, from their resting spot, they left behind tufts of wool and mohair frozen to the earth.

The elders later marked December 1967 as the winter when hay was delivered from the sky. It’s a time and place I will not forget because the arroyo covered by Sagebrush offered a haven for my extended Navajo family, and it remains a place I visit in my dreams.

Betty Reid has been a journalist for many years and writes for The Arizona Republic. She grew up on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, a stone’s throw from the Colorado River, and now lives in Phoenix. A version of this story originally appeared in Arizona Highways magazine.

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