The Story  of an  Orphan

Nancy Woodman

Early Childhood

My mother died while I was still very small. I didn't see her, nor did I ever become aware of her, for I was still a baby when she died. I had only my father and my grandmother. I have no idea how I grew up after my mother died.

I became aware of these facts, and I can remember almost everything. I was aware of the fact that I was neglected, and I recall how I was shoved off among the trash piles. I suffered every imaginable kind of mistreatment inflicted upon me with any and all means at anyone's disposal. I can remember how I was abused in every way. I used to spend my nights sitting huddled just any place - places like the doorway. What care I got did not even include bedding for me.

Nevertheless, my mother left some goats when she died, and I used to herd them. I had to take care of these. I did not even have shoes for my feet when I went herding.

When I was out herding, my tattered clothing, made haphazardly out of old flour sacks, would flutter about me. I even went about with my hair filthy and matted with burrs, and I was covered with lice. This is how I suffered day by day. But even so, I had some goats.

Once when I did something wrong my grandmother beat me with a club, and gave me nothing to eat for perhaps two days. Without a thing to eat I continued to trail along after the goats. There was an orphaned kid which I fed, and which always followed me about. At night it would lie cuddled in my arms. One morning (during the time when I was given nothing to eat) I carried the kid outdoors to feed it, but I collapsed by the fireplace with the kid in my arms. I had fainted from hunger.

In those days corn was the main staple, so some corn gruel was made for me. After drinking it I gained enough strength to go out and feed the kid.

My grandmother seemed to hate me for some reason, and was very mean to me. She would give me awful tongue lashings. And I would crawl or roll about all night long, because of the cold. One night as I lay huddled somewhere I woke up nearly frozen to death. It was in the middle of the night.

I thought and thought about my plight, but could think of nothing to do about it. I did everything I could think of (to get warm,) but without success. I would sit huddled face down, but I couldn't get warm. Then I happened to see an old saddle that belonged to my grandmother. I picked it up and then sat down again, crouched forward, and put the saddle on top of my back. Then I went to sleep, warmed by that cover.

I was still sleeping when the sun came up, and my grandmother saw me as I slept. Suddenly I heard her give vent to her anger. "You must be going to the land of the dead, trying to bring evil this way. You must be trying to follow your dead mother," she said to me, striking me as I lay asleep.

As I leapt to my feet the saddle fell off. Then, as she cursed me with everything she could think of, I ran off to some distance from the hogan. "Go to the land of the dead! Go where a bear will tear you apart and gobble you down! Stay away, you evil spirit!" she said, cursing me. Suffering like this from everything I grew up.

Ran Away To Father

I could stand this abuse no longer, so I got to the point where I would run away and go to where my father lived with his new wife. Later on I started to live there. I got good care. They gave me instructions in clan relationships, and taught me to weave.

I went on herding my goats. I increased my goat herd even though I hadn't a home to call my own, and had to spend the night wherever evening caught me. Later I got a man, and we continued with the goats. They increased, and as for ourselves, we began to have children. The goats multiplied until there were over 300 of them.

About the time the herd had risen to this number, goats became the subject of discussion everywhere. The result was that my goats were taken from me, and I was paid a dollar a head for or them.

So once again misfortune overtook me. I began to give it thought. It occurred to me that all my work had been for nothing, and in caring for my flock I had suffered every hardship. I came to the conclusion that all these hardships had been for nothing. I still feel that way about it today.

After that I busied myself with a search for a new means of support. As a result of my efforts I had a log cabin built for me at Lukachukai. I got the lumber from the sawmill. I also got some roofing paper, and that's the way I got my house.

It is nice to have a home. And there's nothing that can compare with a home of your own where you can raise your children. In my time I spent my days without a roof over my head, and with all the consequences of such a life. It's terrible when one has no one to care for him, and nobody to teach him.

Learned To Weave

I learned to weave when I was 13 years old, and weaving became my trade. When I learned it, I gained my independence. I got so I could support myself by my work, and I kept it up. I made fairly good rugs, and still do.

That is how I got along. I've made a great many rugs. I just take them to the trading post, where I have always just taken them out in trade.

I get food for my rugs, and that is how I get along. It is now 49 years since I learned to weave, according to my recollection. And back there in the days of my innocence I merely took them to the trader accepting whatever he offered for them.

Eleven years ago I decided to copy a blanket of the commercial type found in stores, and my copy turned out well. By processing my wool very carefully I succeeded in making a good copy of the store blanket. I started doing this, and made eight of them.

I made these, and then carried the same processing over to produce very smooth Navajo rugs. Making these copies of the store blanket taught me how to work the wool and make it smooth. I sold one of my copies of the commercial blanket at Window Rock, and there they paid me sixty dollars in cash for it.

Later I took a Navajo rug there, and they again paid me the same price. And they gave me cash. That was the first time I had ever received cash for a rug. Before that I had never been handed a single nickel. That is my experience in the matter of making Navajo rugs.

There is not a trader here amongst us who pays cash, I ask for even so little as a nickel in cash, but they won't give it to me. I have never received so much as one nickel cash (at a trading post). As I now give thought to this matter, I wonder why this is true of the trading posts. You simply cannot get cash. Why is it? Could there be some law which makes it that way? Maybe there's a regulation against giving so much as a nickel cash. I'm just making guesses. It's for this reason that even when I take a little rug to the trader I feel sort of unhappy at letting it go. I put a great deal of effort into my rugs, and it is this fact which causes me to be a bit unhappy at letting them go to the traders hereabout.

I think matters such as this one are worthy of discussion. I wish that weavers all over the reservation would meet together for the purpose of discussing it.

Of course there are some weavers who merely toy with their wool, and they bring poor products in to the stores. These people really spoil things for us. They keep the sale value of our products low, and I wish they would stop. I wish that everybody would adopt the same standards and do good weaving.

If that were the case, I wonder how much better things might be. If there were any chance for us to discuss these things, maybe something could be worked out. And possibly this matter of paying in cash could be worked out too. It would be nice if the weavers got even one whole nickel in cash.


Nowadays I take part in many activities. One winter the priest here gave us a course in First Aid, and that same spring we were taken over to Chinle to continue the course. There were several of us women who were taken over there for the First Aid course.

We were taught even about little things in the home - even such things as being careful about spit. "Even though you might think of that as a minor thing, it can cause sickness," we were told. And we were taught many other facts. In such ways one can learn many things.

But you yourself have to take the initiative and go after it. And when you do that there are people who say, "But I don't look at it that way." When people meet here for any purpose, even just for the purpose of settling little troubles, I always attend. I take part in everything. I go just to learn how they handle such matters. Different problems require different approaches. Because there is no one to tell me about things, I look into them myself, and keep my ears open. Since the days of my childhood I have been on my own.

I do not know the English language, and cannot read it. But here at Lukachukai I was asked to be the Girl Scout Leader, and I have been in that position for three years. At first I declined, saying, "What for? I cannot understand English," but they took me anyway. They told me, "Give it a try and you will learn things." So, I took the position for a three year term. And what they told me was right. You can learn a lot of things in this way. Such activities seem to throw light on things you did not know. That is how one learns many things.

And when you attend meetings and hear intelligent men and women speak, you learn things. This is how you struggle to learn when you have no teacher. This is the way it is when you have no folks. And this is the way I am today.

Education Only Means To Progress

Today we look to the educated of our children for leadership. We pin our hope on them. I am in agreement with this. I am thankful for all of you who went to school and learned to read.

Help us with what you have learned, in every way you can. Help our people in all ways possible. Help those of us who do not know a word of English, and who cannot read. Some of us have become old men and women. We are too old to go to school, and we don't know how much longer our struggle will last. That's why I say I am grateful for the schools available to our children, and to those who will grow to school age in the future. We want schools for them. This is our main concern for our children. If our wish comes true, our children will make a living by means of their education.

My only children are two girls. One of them did not go to school very long because she had to herd goats. She is at home now, with only three years of schooling. She had merely a smattering of education. I think she had too little. The other one has left me to go to school in California. She had gone to school before and wanted badly to return. She often writes home to me. But when she writes, there's no one at home to read her letters. The girl at home knows too little English.

If I had kept them in school since they were small I wonder how they would be. I'm sorry I didn't do so. This matter of education is something to be sought after. If you do not go to school, and a white man comes up to you to say something to you, you can only stand and rub your heels together. You just stand there wishing you could talk to him. That's the way it is with me now.

The old folks used to say that schools are a waste of time. They used to say that the children become odd on account of the white man's religion. I do not believe that. They used to be really opposed to the white man's religion. But both the Navajo and the white man's religion are all right with me. I am grateful for both, and I respect both of them.

Some people say that we are getting away from the old religion, but I don't think so. I do not think that there is any cause for alarm. I think the power of our religion keeps right on.

The old prayers, customs, powerful songs, and the foremost medicine men of former times are now passing some of their functions to our scholars and interpreters - that is all that is happening, I think. For at present we look to the students and interpreters for leadership. We look only to them. But in former times people looked to the medicine men. So the educated people of today have replaced the medicine men of past times in this sense.

And our councilmen too have taken over some of the functions that once belonged to the medicine man. They are all striving for something good which will show us the way forward. I am thankful.

And I think that the Navajo religion goes on just as it went on in the past. I do not think it has come to an end. So you who are in school - you who know English - you whom we call our councilmen - work hard for us.

Nancy Woodman. "The Story of an Orphan" from Navajo Historical Selections (Phoenix: Phoenix Indian School Print Shop, 1954), edited by Robert W. Young and William Morgan. Reprinted by permission of Gloria Emerson, Director, Native American Materials Development Center.



As printed in Larry Evers, ed. The South Corner of Time. Tucson, Ariz.: The University of Arizona Press, ©1980, p. 77.