'I can do a lot'

Still weaving at 91, elder teaches quiet lesson in courage

By Natasha Kaye Johnson
Special to the Times

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(Special to the Times - Natasha Kaye Johnson)

Weaver Mary A. Nez, 91, works on a rug on her loom recently at Klagetoh, Ariz.

KLAGETOH, Ariz., Aug. 21, 2008

A cool afternoon breeze sweeps through the front door of Mary A. Nez's home.

It's a quiet Sunday afternoon and she is sitting in front of her loom on a stool cushioned with a tattered pillow. Her back is slightly stooped from old age.

But at 91, her movements at the loom are still swift. She scoots the batten and combs down the rug, adding in different colors of wool.

Then she pauses for a few brief moments and glides her hand across the strings, leaning back to examine her work so far. Her face holds deep concentration, but she breaks into laughter as her little brother, 85-year-old Dan George, teases her.

"You are going to be in the paper, and here you don't even have any jewelry on!" he tells her in Navajo.

The laugher spreads around the room, where Nez's family is gathered to watch her get interviewed.

She should hurry into the bathroom and put on some blush and mascara, they tell her. And fix her hair into an exaggerated, fluffy tsiiyeel "like those young ladies" in Navajo royalty pageants.

Nez continues to laugh out loud at the jokes, shaking her head in amusement. She pretends to tidy her emerald velvet blouse and push back loose strands of hair. Then she gets back to her weaving, pulling strands of wool from a bucket beside her.

"I used to love to watch my mom and my aunties," she says in Navajo. Her daughter Etta Lewis translated.

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Nez began weaving when she was 10 years old, she says. She is not sure how many rugs she was woven in her lifetime, but asks Etta to get a photo album. Her daughter brings out a frayed brown album packed with Polaroid shots of Nez holding the rugs she wove.

The photos bear witness as much to the passage of time as to her skill. With each turn of the page, her hair becomes more silver, her grandchildren older.

Childhood memories

Nez was born with only one hand, yet she has made her living as a weaver.

She was 10 years old when she wove her first rug, and sold it for $3 to a short Bilagáana man from Pine Springs, Ariz. It was a lot of money, she recalls, adding that flour was only 25 cents a sack then.

Nez never thought of herself as having a handicap, she said. "I just got used to using my hand when I was little. It wasn't that hard."

Nez was born Jan. 15, 1917, somewhere between Klagetoh and Chambers, Ariz. She is is Tábaahá (Edge Water Clan) born for Tsénj’kin’ (Cliffdwellers Clan). Her chei is Honágháahnii (One Walks Around Clan) and her nál’ is T—d’ch'’i'nii (Bitter Water Clan).

Neither she nor her siblings were born in a hospital, and her family followed the sheep throughout the year, never calling one place home.

As the day turned into the afternoon, Nez recalled growing up in Klagetoh.

"Our parents made us work all the time," she said.

She recalled how she used to grind a 25-pound bag of corn each day before heading out to herd sheep. Her parents picked pi–ons while they herded, and sometimes they would play.

She recalled a particular red rock where she and her siblings used to play. They would throw soft dirt on the rock, and slide down it on a thin slab on stone, almost like sledding. Afterwards, they would eat the corncakes, mush, and goat's milk they had packed for lunch.

"You can still see a groove in the rock from where they used to slide down," said her daughter Etta.

Nez remembered how they would ride donkeys as they rounded up the nearly 300 sheep her parents had. She and her sister would race on horseback when it was time to take the herd to the sheep dip at Wide Ruins, Ariz.

She is happy to share stories of her youth, but when asked where she met her husband, she becomes embarrassed.

"Hw—la hey (I don't know)!" she says with a jolt in her voice.

Her family breaks into laughter and the playful teasing starts again: "They probably met at the rock where they used to slide!"

Nez chuckles nervously at the question, and family members say they asked her before, but she never told them.

"Don't rehash those memories!" she says jokingly.

Nez continues with her weaving, and the living room becomes hushed again. The sound of KGAK on the radio blends with the bleating of sheep and goats in the background.

"She's been able to do a lot for herself," her brother Dan says. "She worked with that hand like she can do anything."

Two hands, no excuses

Lorita George, Mary's niece, recalled how her aunt once instructed her and another cousin to butcher a sheep for a Nidáá (Enemy Way ceremony). The girls hesitated, complaining they did not know how.

George remembers her aunt grabbing the sheep and butchering it on her own. She made her nieces help, and explained to them how one day they would have to butcher for themselves and their family, and they needed to learn.

She remembers her aunt always getting things done and staying on task.

"She always figured, 'I can do that'," George said.

Grandson Dwayne Lewis, 41, has similar memories of his grandmother.

"I've never heard her complain or make excuses or anything," he said. "She raised her family, her sheep, and her animals with one hand."

Lewis owns Arizona Native Frybread, a restaurant in Mesa, Ariz., and credits his grandmother for giving him the inspiration to open the business.

"She said we came into this world with two hands, and we have no excuses (not) to accomplish what we want," said Lewis. "I remember when there was ceremonies she was always making bread and cooking."

"There's nothing that is hard," Nez said she tells her grandchildren. "You see me. I only have one hand, but I can do a lot of stuff. You can do anything with two hands."

Nez still has 26 sheep that she herds. She said she always told her grandchildren they could accomplish anything if they worked hard and followed the philosophy and values of the Navajo people.

"A'aan'teego," she said. "You'll get somewhere. Don't be lazy, don't sleep when the sun is coming out, don't feel bad for yourself."

A blessing

While the idea of meeting the demands of Navajo culture and the Western world are usually seen as an ongoing challenge, Nez sees it as blessing.

"The ones who are able to learn the Bilagáana way, they are advantaged because they can still come back and learn this," she said. "It's a blessing their minds are broadened."

Mary said she is happy the youth have the opportunity to leave the reservation and get an education. When she was a young girl, she begged her parents to let her go to school.

"I wish I could have gone to school, even for three years," she said.

Nez and her siblings saw the advantages of learning the new ways, especially since traders only hired people who spoke both English and Navajo.

"I used to cry because my parents told me I could not go to school," said her brother Dan.

Then Nez slowly stands up and sits in a chair. She scoots her grinding stone against the wall and out of her way, and stares outside her screened window for a moment. Her tone becomes serious.

"She says it would be nice if the young people could come back and learn the stories and the ways of the medicine men," said Etta, translating. "That's what makes them who they are, their background being Diné."'

"Even as old people, we still have something to teach," Nez said in Navajo. "As a grandparent, you're always thinking of your grandchildren and how they're doing."

But sometimes she thinks her grandkids are not thinking of her because they do not come back to visit.

"We feel like we're forgotten," she said through her daughter. "We know they're living their lives down there, but they are making some money down there. They should come back and visit us."

Nez said she hears about the struggle young people are going through with drugs and alcohol and wants to remind them to not underestimate the power of ceremonies.

For two years, she was ill, and throughout that time she had several ceremonies conducted including Yei Bi Cheii's. She did not share the details of her illness, but urged young people to seek traditional services when they need them.

"The H—zh——j’ (Blessing Way) songs and weaving songs make me feel good," she said.

As nightfall came, Nez continued to share more about her life and the traditional Navajo philosophies she has lived by. Finally she stood up, walked into the kitchen, and then turned around with a puzzled look on her face.

"Are you going to stay the night?" she said, prompting another burst of laughter around the room.

Asked if she wanted to share anything else, Nez urged the young people to come back and learn the traditional ways.

"They can do it. It's up to the person if they're willing to learn," she said. "(But) whenever the young people stop using the language and the traditions, we will become a lost tribe, a lost people."

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