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BULLETpeople archive
People Archive Photo
© Lynn Sankey

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The Matriarch
of Monument Valley
Although she's a local legend who's been featured in movies, Susie Yazzie has lived a traditional Navajo life for close to 100 years — raising sheep, carding wool, weaving rugs — and her hogan has been a frequent stop on guided tours of Monument Valley for decades.

By Kathy Montgomery

Monument Valley Susie Yazzie sits before her upright loom on a low stool, regal as a queen on her throne. On this day, the "grandmother of Monument Valley" wears a pink satin skirt, purple velveteen blouse and chunky turquoise jewelry. Her thinning silver hair is tied at the base of her neck in the traditional hourglass shape.

At the sight of visitors, the creases in Susie's age-spotted face deepen into a smile. She exchanges a few words in Navajo with her daughter, Effie. Susie wants to know about the guests Effie has brought. She asks if they've been there before.

Nodding, satisfied, Susie plucks a handful of wool from the fluffy mound near her stool. She cards it, combing the wool until the fibers are clean and orderly. Then she pulls the wool off into a fluffy roll and feeds it onto the tip of a long, wooden spindle. Rubbing the shaft of the spindle against her thigh, Susie works the wool into a spool of thick yarn.

Although she speaks little English, Susie has welcomed a great many visitors. Her hogan has been a frequent stop on guided tours of Monument Valley for decades. She has appeared in John Ford movies, as well as many books, documentaries and magazines, including Arizona Highways. Her image has even graced bags of Frito-Lay's potato chips.

Yet for all her celebrity, Yazzie has lived a traditional Navajo life for close to 100 years — raising sheep, carding wool, weaving rugs — all without the benefit of electricity or running water. She's a medicine woman of sorts, a midwife who delivered two of her own grandchildren, and a hand trembler, adept at the ancient Navajo practice used to diagnose illness or find lost objects.

The oldest girl of eight children, Susie's Navajo name roughly translates to "fair-skinned woman." It was her late husband, Tully, who gave Susie her Anglo name. Though the exact date of her birth is unknown, Susie was born in the spring, sometime around 1917. Her birthday is celebrated on tax day.

She learned to weave as a young girl. Her mother was often sick, so Susie took on most of the family chores. She tended sheep and scaled the surrounding sandstone mesas for rainwater that collected in depressions, carrying it back in a sumac basket lined with piñon pitch.

When Susie was perhaps 16, her mother became very ill while pregnant with her last child and had to be taken to the hospital. The family was living in the summer shade house at the time. When the weather grew cold, Susie's mother had still not come home. Susie never saw her again. But her father returned with a baby brother, then wandered off in his grief, leaving Susie to care for the baby and all the other children.

Susie appealed to trader Harry Goulding for help. By then the man the Navajos called "tall sheep" was coming around regularly selling groceries and other goods from his wagon. He kept an eye on the family, giving Susie condensed milk for the baby and trading rugs she had woven for other necessities. He also started bringing around tourists.

Susie posed for photos for the tourists, and eventually began giving weaving demonstrations. The income helped support the family, but it was Susie's marriage that finally made her life easier. The work her husband found off the reservation supported the family, and when he returned home he brought wagons, mattresses and other luxuries.

When Goulding convinced John Ford to use Monument Valley as a backdrop for Ford's Western films, Susie, Tully and Effie were among the Navajos hired to work as extras. Susie also performed in My Darling Clementine, and all three appeared in Cheyenne Autumn.

Colette Waddell, who recorded the stories of the entire Yazzie family for a yet-unpublished book, says Susie was directed to do the things she normally did: mostly to get on a horse and ride around.

At one point, Waddell says, Susie and her husband had trouble cashing their paychecks from the studio and had to travel to Los Angeles. It may have been the only time Susie left the reservation.

"She was not at all impressed," Waddell says. "She called it the hot country. Can you imagine? She lives in Monument Valley and thought Los Angeles was the hot country?"

While she was there, Susie got her name tattooed on her forearm, perhaps so she would remember how to sign her name. That gave her the ability to execute contracts, but she didn't always understand what she was signing, Waddell says.

Like the time a photographer came to the reservation and got Susie to sign away her rights to the photos he took. Her image ended up on bags of Frito-Lay's Santa Fe Ranch chips.

But Waddell believes Susie's real joy has been hosting the tourists she refers to as visitors.

"That's what keeps her going strong," Waddell says. "It's what keeps her alive."

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