When author Colette Waddell met Susie Yazzie more than a decade ago, she had no idea that she would be tasked with recording the Yazzie family history. But, then again, we are talking about the woman who was given a Navajo nickname that roughly translates to “Woman Who Asks Many Questions.”
Below, Waddell, who spent 10 years talking to Susie and her family, shares an excerpt from her upcoming book, Shade House Conversations: The Story of an American Family.
By Colette Waddell
Susie Yazzie, matriarch of Monument Valley, renowned weaver, revered storyteller and one of the last great symbols of an iconic West, passed away quietly on February 3, 2013. She was surrounded by her family during her last days on Earth, and she must have known she was deeply loved. I suspect Susie was unaware, however, of the impact she had on those of us who traipsed through her hogan, eyes wide and full of questions. This kind and patient woman politely referred to us tourists, writers, photographers, and anthropologists as “visitors.” This did not mean we were unimportant to her. In many ways, we helped her maintain the traditional life she held so dear. We were simply different in that we were not blood, and certainly not Navajo. Because of this, Susie may not have realized how heartbroken we would all be when word came of her passing. But to her “visitors,” Susie was more than a gifted artist, a photo opportunity, or a representative of traditional Navajo life that is slowly slipping away. To us, Susie was a friend, an adopted grandmother, and an inspiration.
I met Susie Yazzie on one of the many guided horseback-riding excursions offered by her son, Lonnie. My husband and I became very close with Lonnie and the rest of the Yazzies living in Monument Valley when, at Lonnie’s request, I began to record the family history dating back to the Long Walk of 1864. In the warm darkness of Susie’s hogan I learned about Four-Horned Lady, a revered ancestor who survived Kit Carson’s forced march to the Bosque Redondo internment camp. I heard about Susie’s great-grandmother’s escape from that dreadful camp and the magical odyssey of her return home. We moved on to record Susie’s own rich history, as well as the stories of her children and grandchildren. Every interview was filled with more laughter than tears, though the tears did come. I was hypnotized by the way Suzie quietly but deliberately wove her stories as beautifully as she wove her rugs. Her hands gently danced in the air as she described the adventures, tragedies and intricacies of everyday Dine’ life in the early Twentieth Century. Each time I drove the bumpy washboard road out of the tribal park my head felt cloudy with stories and my heart full of the love so evident amongst this tightly knit family. I recorded the Yazzies’ history over the course of ten years, earning the name “Woman Who Asks Many Questions.” I came to love the Yazzies, and like others who met Susie, I felt protective of this quietly wise matriarch of Monument Valley.
There are no words to describe how much the Yazzies loved Susie, though I saw plenty of evidence they were all completely devoted to her. There were always a number of family members helping with her livestock, taking turns with the hogan business of entertaining visitors, chopping wood for the ever-burning wood stove, or conversing with her over endless cups of the strong coffee brewed in an old, blue camp percolator.
Susie prided herself on managing her home and business, and she learned her self-sufficient ways while growing up on the reservation. Her family believes she was born in the spring of 1914; however, no one could be absolutely certain of Susie’s age. Records were not kept in those days, and the Navajo traditionally looked at time as cyclical rather than in the Western linear manner. Like any young Navajo child in the early twentieth century, Susie spent her days watching over her family’s livestock, and she helped with the many chores that came with living a hardscrabble life on the reservation. Unfortunately, by the age of ten, her mother became very ill. Susie then began to weave, selling her rugs at Goulding’s Trading Post in order to provide for her siblings. Though she never had the benefit of attending school, Susie knew exactly how many sheep and goats she had and how to manage her money. She spent untold hours shearing, carding, dying and spinning her own wool in order tocreate her beautiful rugs. She went on to marry her husband, Tully, and raised a family of five strong children. During that time Susie served her community as a midwife, and offered her skills as a diagnostic “hand trembler.” She appeared as an extra in John Ford’s Western dramas, as well as a number of later films that helped to make her home a mecca for those seeking Monument Valley’s stark beauty. Through all of these endeavors, Susie kept her family close, teaching her children and the generations that followed the traditions she held dear.
Her weaving earned worldwide recognition, and many came to see her demonstrate her art upon the big loom made of juniper wood. She was the favorite subject ofmany gifted photographers, and even appeared in national advertisements. Susie remained unaffected by the attention, and she kept her desires simple. She enjoyed evenings filled with storytelling, and she favored several beautiful pieces of silver and turquoise jewelry created by her family. She relished the cupcake “Snow Balls” we brought her, and I was told she liked my spaghetti. Most of all, she loved the valley and the people in it, earning the love and respect of her community for her devotion to family and traditional Navajo life.
Attending Susie’s memorial service was special because everyone had a story to share about this strong but quiet woman. Her granddaughters fondly recalled the many summers they spent playing and working at Susie’s place. Every morning they were awakened by a gentle pull on the ear, and their grandmother’s urging to “help get the chores done.” Then Susie gave them a lunch of canned tomatoes accompanied by Saltine crackers, and they spent the rest of the day playing on the rock formations surrounding Susie’s home. Even as the granddaughters shared their memories, Susie’s great grandchildren were climbing those very same rocks. Many relatives spoke of a renewed determination to maintain family ties, because “it was important to Susie.” Just as in Susie’s stories, there was enough laughter to temper the tears we all shed in remembering her, and I know she would have been proud of the way her family pulled together in honoring her life and her legacy.
I once asked Susie if she minded me taking down her stories. I had been told by family members that she imagined I was “a crazy white lady,” and that “all the time she wants to know about how things were in the old days.” Susie wondered why I wanted to know about the sheep and her weaving, and she thought that perhaps I “wanted to know people’s secrets.” I could never deny that I truly wished to experience Susie’s life through her stories. After all, it appeared that she had enjoyed a very good life. Upon our last interview in her shade house Susie let me know that she had decided my constant questioning would be put to good use. “I see you writing,” she said with an approving nod, “and now my grandkids will be able read my story. I think it would be a pretty good story and good history for the kids.” She sat quietly for a while, then admitted, “I thought it over, and I don’t mind if other people read my story. People should know how we used to live.” With that Susie stood and smoothed the deep red velveteen blouse and satiny skirt she always wore. She gave me the shy smile I had come to love, and slowly walked from the shade house to her hogan.* I like to remember Susie in this way. She was on her way to sit with family and visitors alike, to weave and to continue her traditions. The path she had worn over the years must certainly hold the essence of this wonderful woman. And if you come to visit the valley, I invite you to find her amidst the towering monuments. If you stand very quietly, you might hear her spirit whispering in the wind.
(*Excerpts drawn from Shade House Conversations: The Story of an American Family. Available through TopCat Press summer 2013)