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Native History: Blizzard Devastates Navajo and Hopi Nations

On Dec. 14, 1967, a blizzard hit the Navajo and Hopi Nations, covering the ground with as much as seven feet of snow, trapping residents in homes.
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This Date in Native History: On December 14, 1967, a blizzard hit the Navajo and Hopi Nations, covering the ground with as much as seven feet of snow, trapping residents in their homes and rendering roads impassable.

A total of 86 inches of snow fell that month in Flagstaff, Arizona, said David Vonderheide, a hydrometeorology technician at the National Weather Service. It was the snowiest December on record.

“Travel on the reservations would have been impossible,” he said. “People would be stuck in their buildings.”

The snow accumulated quickly and the temperature dropped to 6 below zero on December 21, Vonderheide said. Snow fell for a week, followed by arctic air.

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Painted Desert Wears A Coat of White - Snow; Navajo Indians have lived in this Arizona area for centuries. That’s an Indian house in the center foreground not a hogan.) painted Desert’s cliffs, in background, normally are red, reddish purple, lavender, and deep purple. There’s rarely this much white.

Leonard Anthony, Navajo, was 11 when the blizzard hit. He lived with his family in Greasewood Springs, Arizona, a small community west of the Navajo Nation’s capital city and close to the Hopi reservation.

“At first, my dad told us to go out in our shorts and roll in the snow, but after that, it just kept coming down,” he said. “It just didn’t let up. It kept snowing and we couldn’t go anywhere. All the people who were homebound couldn’t get out.”

After a couple of days, Anthony’s father walked to the trading post for food. Because the snow was four or more feet deep, Anthony’s father wrapped gunny sacks around his feet and walked on top of the snow drifts. While he was out, he stopped at the chapter house to determine what was being done for residents stuck in the more remote areas.

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Navaho reservation hit by snowstorm with sign stamped out requesting food & hay. Late 1967.

“I remember hearing that some of the people were found frozen because they tried to get out of their houses and walk to find food,” Anthony said. “Eventually, after the sixth or seventh day of snow, people were starving.”

On December 18, 1967, as the blizzard continued to rage, the U.S. Air Force began conducting helicopter rescue missions, dropping food and medical supplies to stranded residents. The Associated Press on December 19 of that year reported that Navajo officials were making pleas for state and federal aid in the form of “equipment and men.”

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Five snow vehicles are loaded aboard an Air National Guard plane at Buckley; they were among 15 machines sent to help snowbound Navajo Indians in Arizona. The machines were supplied by Ski-Doo West Co. of Boulder in a project coordinated by The Denver Post. The vehicles were transported to Gallup, New Mexico aboard a Super-Constellation plane flown by Wyoming Air National Guard.

Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai told the Associated Press that the situation was “the most critical in the modern-day history of the Navajo Nation.” Six days into the storms, 32 deaths had been reported, including three on the Navajo reservation. The snow storms also hit neighboring states and led to a total of 51 deaths.

Nakai estimated that 60,000 Navajo citizens were affected by the storms, included some that had gone without food for 10 days. Nakai also said that 1 million cows, horses, sheep and other livestock were threatened.

Long Beach Independent Press Telegram/AP Images

A Navajo woman and her children look out over the vast Indian reservation in Northern Arizona on January 24, 1968 as melting snow of a severe winter blizzard raises hopes that better times are coming. For them, better times means only that they no longer face starvation.

Anthony’s uncle helped the National Guard locate stranded residents. Because the helicopters couldn’t land in the deep snow, rescuers dropped food, emergency kits and livestock feed to residents.

“The rescuers couldn’t find the hogans, they couldn’t find the sheep corrals because they were covered in snow,” Anthony said. “They couldn’t find life at all in some places.”

Long Beach Independent Press Telegram/AP Images

Mary Lou Blackrock trudges through the snow to the clothesline on January 14, 1968 where frozen but clean blankets hang in the sun. She and her family live in the Black Mesa area of the 25,000-square mile Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona.

Many people lost their livestock, Anthony said. Residents whose animals survived butchered sheep or cows so other people could eat.

“At that time, as a young boy, I began to see there was a lot of community effort to take care of people in remote areas,” he said. “I remember my father sacrificing some of his sheep to butcher so other people could eat.”

Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Flock belonging to Navaho Indians foraging in deep snow of severe winter. Late 1967.

Although the blizzard of 1967 was severe, roads still become impassable during snowstorms, and emergency situations can arise quickly, Vonderheide said.

“There are huge tracts of land in the West, particularly on the reservations, where there are very few people,” he said. “They are hurt by the extreme weather, and the blizzards also get the livestock.”