Navajo Santa celebrates 27 years

An estimated 600 Diné gathered Dec. 3 for the 27th Navajo Santa giveaway at a location eight miles south of Red Mesa Trading Post off Highway 160.

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times

SWEETWATER, Ariz., Dec. 11, 2011

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TOP: Frances Begay, 69, from Tólikan, made tortillas Dec. 3 for the crowd at the 27th Navajo Santa giveaway.

BOTTOM: Volunteers from northeastern Utah unload boxes Dec. 3 at the 27th Navajo Santa Giveaway south of the Red Mesa Trading Post. Blankets, food, winter garments, and other necessities were given out.s

A fter a weeklong gathering for fun and games, the Tólikan community ended their festivities Dec. 3 with a visit from Navajo Santa of Ya'at'eeh Keshmish, a nonprofit organization.

"What it is is to provide a good Christmas for as many people of the Navajo Nation as we can," Ya'at'eeh Keshmish supporter Gary Evershed, from Salt Lake City, said. "We try to provide things that are useful like buckets, shovels, clothes, axes, books, and toys for the children."

Navajo Santa commemorated its 27th consecutive giveaway this year with volunteers from northern Utah including Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson, two former Utah Jazz coaches.

"(The giveaways) were held on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation," former Navajo Nation Council Delegate Woody Lee said. "This is the first year that one of the founders has their license to do this in the state of Arizona, so it's here."

"Here" was on a chilly, 28-degree morning, eight miles south of Red Mesa Trading Post off Highway 160. In a large shed, Angelita Harrison, Frances Begay, Leslie Tsinaijinnie, Lucia Yazh’, and Lucretia Herbert made tortillas for the visitors on a potbellied, wood-burning stove.

Several Shiprock District police officers observed while Navajo Santa volunteers unloaded five trucks.

Navajo people were lined up by 11 a.m. when a man with a long white wavy beard chanted, "Merry Christmas."

His belt of bells jangled loudly. Feathers dangled from his red full-length red robe. He wore black boots and black gloves.

He was the Navajo Santa and also portrayed a yé'ii to entertain the people that waited in line.

He was San Juan County commissioner and Council Delegate Kenneth Maryboy.

Maryboy said Navajo Santa is a replica of Father Leibler, an Episcopal priest of St. Christopher's Mission during the 1940s. Leibler began the program of gathering Christmas presents and gifts of food for the people of the Four Corners region.

"I lived right across from St. Christopher's Mission," Maryboy said. "There's a huge bridge over the San Juan River. My sister used to walk us out there sometime, late in the evening.

"We use to sit right at the edge where we can see some Christmas lights at the church," he said. "They used to have Christmas music that echoed throughout the valley. We use to sit there for the longest time just to listen to the music and to view the lights.

"When that gathering came around, they had a big dinner and a giveaway," he said. "We got toys and small packages of instant soda pop called Fizzies."

Maryboy said he couldn't afford Christmas presents 29 years ago for his children.

"I was broke," he said. "I realized that my uncle was like that too, so we decided to put our money together to buy candies."

With donations from the local store in Blanding, Utah, Maryboy and his uncle celebrated Christmas with their families.

He also bought a Santa suit and drove down the road stopping other drivers.

"I gave them a sack of candy and fruits," Maryboy said. "That was about the most biggest thrill that I found with people and for the people."

Sometime after that, he guided a group of tourists down the San Juan River. After telling them about his life on the reservation and his idea to start a Christmas distribution program, they were eager to lend a hand.

Today Ya'at'eeh Keshmish is a volunteer enterprise. Navajo Santa brings good spirits and the essence of joy.

"Everything was done by donations," Lee said. "With the help of people and through the spirit of Christmas, all of this has been possible."

"All this was done without the help of the government," he added.

"It's been a great experience for me because I got to see people," Sloan, the former NBA coach, said. "I hope I put a smile on their faces."

Maryboy, the president and founder of Ya'at'teeh Keshmish, received the nonprofit Caring Institute's award for the Navajo Santa program alongside actor Paul Newman in 2002.