Special StoryCorps: Surviving the Blizzard of 1967 on the Navajo Nation

Dec 15, 2017

It’s now time for a special northern Arizona StoryCorps.

Fifty years ago this week, the biggest blizzard in recorded state history buried the Navajo Nation beneath seven feet of snow, trapping an estimated 60,000 people in freezing temperatures for more than a week. Across the region, 51 people died in the whiteout even as helicopters dropped supplies for those left in the snow. During the storm, Lillie Begaye was stranded on her family’s remote sheep farm, 25 miles from the nearest road. She came to StoryCorps with her 13-year-old grandson to remember that time.

Lillie Begaye with her grandson Dumas at the KNAU studios.
Credit Courtesy of StoryCorps

LB: I was 12 years old and my dad woke me up around 3 in the morning and we walked in the snow about 7 miles to bring those horses back so my dad can take my mom to the hospital to have a baby.

Navajo Nation residents stamped out requests for hay and food in the snow during the 1967 blizzard.
Credit Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

And then it was just me and my little brother, Frank. He was five years old.

It was really scary for me, but I had to stay brave and don’t show it to my little brother.

Every day it was snowing and snowing and I shoveled from the doorway to the corral so the sheep can eat. My little brother keeps saying ‘where’s mom? Where’s mom?’

And I tell him, it is okay, ‘the sheeps are there, the dogs are there, you know, we’re not alone.’

All we had was peanut butter there and powdered milk. So, I said, ‘I’m going to make you an ice cream.’ So, I got some snow, and then I got some powdered milk in it, put a little bit of sugar in it and I gave it to him.

My dad’s side of the family live about two miles, and I could hear the dogs barking down there. I tried to make my little brother follow me there, but our feet get frozen, so we just returned back to the house.

Navajo sheep herders during the 1967 blizzard.
Credit Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

We stayed alone for a long time and in the evening, we would just cry ourself to sleep and I was afraid the snow would never end.

One day, I heard real loud noise, I guess it was a chopper, so we ran out and I saw a big bag bag on the snow. I opened it real fast and there was food, like meat, and we ate it with our fingers, from out of the can. It was so good.

I was out in the corral when I heard a wagon, so I ran back to the house and got my brother out and I then said ‘Listen!’ and, sure enough, that wagon came up. My mom, my dad and a little baby, her name is Bernice, they brought her back.

Credit Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

What would you have done if you were in my shoes?

DB: I would have been scared and afraid. Where did your courage came from?

LB: It is probably from my mom, because she always said ‘It will take you to accomplish something.’ That’s what she says in Navajo to us. Life is not easy, takes a lot of work, it is all up to you to make it happen. 

Produced by Kelly Moffitt for StoryCorps, a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.