Navajo 'grammas' provide heritage of will, wisdom
by Jack Utter


I was about 10 miles out of Chinle last summer, driving over the Defiance Plateau in northeastern Arizona, when I saw a "gramma" walking along the dirt road in the windblown dust.

She wore typical tennies, ankle socks, a broomstick skirt, a velveteen blouse, turquoise bracelets and a scarf. I looked for sheep she might be tending. There were none. I determined she was hitchhiking.

Navajo grammas don't hitchhike by thumbing. They merely appear by the right-hand roadside and start walking. It is the duty of drivers to realize their intent.

I stopped, rolled down the truck window and said the traditional "Ya'at'eeh shima (hello, my mother)." She smiled and said, "Ya'at'eeh shiyazh (hello, my son)."

She spoke no English, and I don't really speak Navajo. However, I knew enough to ask where she was going and then invited her to get in.

My hitchhiker had walked over a mile from her hogan. She lived alone and without running water, phone or electricity. Feeling poorly, she was headed to the Indian hospital 20 miles distant.

At the hospital, a nurse told me my 80-year-old rider had pneumonia. However, the prognosis was very good. I went on my way.

This gramma, like so many others, was constitutionally tough. And, unlike many of us, these women don't view the majority of their more difficult life challenges as terrible ordeals. They just see them as inconveniences.

This is how they endure, because it is how they were taught. It is also how they've tried to teach their daughters and granddaughters.

My own extended family of in-laws includes a dozen grammas, ages 75 to 95. Each has an obvious and intelligent iron will.

The classic Navajo grammas are fewer each year. But they have been good role models for their much more contemporary daughters and granddaughters.

It was primarily these younger women who attended the "Navajo Women in Politics" conference at Fort Defiance last month. There I thought a lot about the legacy of the grammas.

I was attending the conference in quiet support of a professional friend, Coconino County Supervisor Louise Yellowman, who was a featured speaker. Just before Yellowman was introduced, I was asked by the organizers to replace a speaker who was unable to attend. I was silently apprehensive, being the only Anglo male there, but I decided to accept the honor.

While Yellowman overviewed her challenging road from being a 14-year-old who spoke no English but who decided to start school anyway to a 30-year career as a teacher and county supervisor, I listened, thought and prepared. My mind went back to the ride I had given to that 80-year-old hitchhiker last summer.

When my time came to speak, I talked mostly of the grammas
and the legacy they are leaving to a rapidly modernizing yet traditionally matrilineal society. I also remarked how I am frequently told that this legacy needs to be made more of a balancing part of today's almost exclusively male Navajo government.

I added that older women tell me how today's Navajo leaders often ignore the opinions of women, whereas traditionally women's views were ex tremely important. I then described that many women, both young and old, tell me that things became this way because their modern government was designed and established not by the Navajos but by non-Navajo male lawyers and federal bureaucrats.

I further mentioned that numerous elders have declared to me \that their government has been manipulated for decades by male-dominated outside interests who only want Navajo resources, like coal and water.

I closed acknowledging Yellowman's observation that, because of serious citizen discontent, Navajo government reform is rightfully on the minds of female Navajo voters. I also noted that many male voters say reform is on their minds as well.

Recently, I heard that more women than usual are considering running for tribal office. They, like Yellowman, continue to be able to draw on a heritage of iron will and wisdom from their grandmothers, which I'm certain will assist them in carrying out good campaigns.

Jack Utter, a former teacher of Indian law, lives on the Navajo Reservation. Reach him at or P.O. Box 200, Fort Defiance, AZ 86504.

copyright Arizona Republic, March 6, 2002

Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.