The Glen Canyon Conservancy, in partnership with the Page Public Library, hosted a talk by JoAnn Yazzie-Pioche on June 20, 2023, at the Page Public Library. Yazzie- Pioche shared her memories of growing up in Page and in the surrounding areas.
Joann Yazzie-Pioche introduced herself in the traditional manner in Navajo and in English sharing her clans and history with the audience. Yazzie- Pioche has lived in the Page area all of her life; she grew up in the White Dome Mesa area, about 10 miles northeast of Page. Her family raised sheep and cattle in the canyons and mesas, and there are rock corrals to this day where her family raised livestock. When people cultivated the valley floor and it was time to harvest the apricots, grapes, melons and squash growing in the canyon, they would come down on a slickrock route she remembers as scary, though most kids had no trouble scrambling up and down. Yazzie-Pioche recalls seeing grey trucks driving around the desert and survey stakes appearing in the sands while herding sheep. Her grandfather was a Navajo Nation Council Delegate at the time, and he told her that they were building a new dam and it would block the river. The ‘white men’ would come around with backpacks and wouldn’t talk to the women. They would only talk to the Navajo men.
She remembers her family not knowing what to do when the water in the Colorado river canyon started to rise. They had three plows in the canyon and one was very nice. As the family realized their land would be covered in water soon, they tried to carry as much as they could, but had to leave behind precious equipment for weight. They did manage to salvage their wagons which were taken out in pieces and reassembled on top. The people then were told that when they got to the top, they’d get a new home, but there was no new home to go to.
When they were herding sheep, they would go to the cliff edge of the Colorado River canyon and lay on their stomachs and look down. When there was a lot of rain, there would be a red streak in the river. Her family grazed near the river. They would take the sheep down in the fall on a path near the “Little Cut.” Today it’s called the “Moonshine Trail.” They would winter down in the canyon until spring when they would move the sheep up higher. Water in the Colorado River was very shallow in winter. When they left for the summer pasture there would be the spring thaw and the Colorado became a torrent. Yazzie-Pioche’s mother said it would be a roaring river with big waves.
They would also graze their animals by descending Waterhole Canyon, now crossed by US89, south of Page. Young men and sheep would be lowered by rope down the pouroffs in Waterhole Canyon. Once down the canyon, they would untie the animals and let them graze. When it was time to go back, they had to round up the animals, tie them up and raise them up the canyon, back to where they started. Yazzie- Pioche said her dad didn’t think it was a fun job.
There was a place near the confluence of the Colorado and San Juan rivers where people would cross and men would go into the Escalante area to hunt. After a while there started to be conflicts until one of their hunting party was killed and they stopped hunting that area. They hunted on the Kaibab Plateau by crossing the Colorado river at Lee’s Ferry and making their way to the plateau.
When the movie “Greatest Story Ever Told” was filmed in 1963, Yazzie-Pioche and her family were in the movie. She remembers bits and pieces herself since she was a little kid then. She says the movie people must have needed kids because many of them took part in the movie. They would cross the bridge at the dam site and board buses taking them to the movie set. She remembers driving somewhere in Wahweap Canyon. The movie set was behind what is now called Castle Rock.
The movie set had small ‘lean-to’ structures covered in gunny sacks to represent homes. She remembers when they were filming the scene where Jesus was riding a donkey that someone tripped and others started laughing. Someone yelled ‘cut’ and they had to film it again. One of her fondest memories from the movie were the box lunches, which were the best lunches she ever had. She thinks it is because of the sweets that were packed with the lunch, something she hadn’t had before.
Yazzie-Pioche started school at the Kaibeto boarding when it was in the canyon. Many of her friends started school as roommates and became best friends. She remembers she and her classmates slept in bunk beds. She didn’t like boarding school and went to the Page Schools in third grade. Navajo is her first language and learned English later. She remembers struggling with the “M” and “N” sounds. She remembers being punished for speaking Navajo. Students were transported to Page from Gap, Kaibeto and other nearby communities. Before being able to go out to recess and playing with toys in Kindergarten, she remembers having to recite the alphabet.
She remembers a big snowstorm that hit northern Arizona in the winter of 1967- 68. It started snowing early and snowed for three or four days and there was lightning and thunder. Her mom said the thunder meant it was going to be a big storm. When the storm started, they were in school and stayed in school all day. There was no such thing as going home early. The bus driver drove the kids back home. He tried to make a run at the highest ridge but got stuck. The driver got the boys to load rocks in the back of the bus and made another run. The bus almost made it but got close to the edge. After putting on chains, they were able to get home. Yazzie-Pioche remembers following the wheel tracks in the snow to get home.
There was so much snow that helicopters delivered food and bulldozers cleared the roads. Shelves in the stores in Page were empty because the delivery trucks couldn’t make it. The snow was deep all over and the roads were mostly one lane roads with wide spots every so often.
When Page stated to grow there weren’t very many buildings at first. Her mom remembered there were around fifteen of them at first. Next to the Mesa Theater there was a grocery and variety store. Her mother, an excellent weaver, would trade rugs for supplies. It was the biggest store at the time. She remembers seeing her first anglo lady at a store or laundromat in Page when she was a little girl. She would hide in grandma’s long skirt because she had never seen anyone of that color before.
Yazzie-Pioche taught in the Page schools and is proud of the time she was a student and a teacher. She is married, has two daughters and runs a tour company called “igai Si’ Anii Tours.” She says it has been “great to be a part of (the Page area) and has met wonderful people.” There is nothing like the Page area for her and is glad to be here.
Debbie Moses, Executive Director of the Conservancy announced that the John Wesley Powell Museum will soon permanently house the hand carved model of Lake Powell and the Upper Colorado River Basin. Many remember the detailed map from the Carl Hayden Visitor Center when it was first displayed in the 1960s. In 2015 the visitor center was remodeled and the map was put into storage at the Bureau of Reclamation warehouse. The Conservancy agreed to display the map in the Flagship store. Since then, the museum has been remodeled and new exhibits are being installed. According to Moses, the map has found its “forever home” in the John Wesley Powell Museum. Moses thanked Pat Talbott for volunteering to help assemble the map and prepare it for display.
The July 18 lecture will be held at the Glen Canyon Conservancy Flagship store at 12 North Lake Powell Blvd. The museum’s grand opening is expected later this year. For more information about future lectures, contact the Glen Canyon conservancy at canyonconservancy.org or the Page Public Library at pagepubliclibrary.org.