Lillie Ann Begaye was 12 years old when her entire world turned white.
It was mid-December 1967 and snow had fallen on the Navajo Nation for days. Left in charge of her 5-year-old brother, Frank, while her parents made the 75-mile journey by horse and wagon to the nearest hospital, Begaye was encased in snow.
“My mom was in labor,” said Begaye, now 59. “It started snowing several days before they left us alone.”
The family’s home in White Mesa, Arizona, normally bustled with life; Begaye had four sisters and four brothers, and the family also kept horses, sheep and other livestock. But when the worst blizzard in recorded history hit the Navajo Nation, it buried entire communities in as much as seven feet of snow.
Flock belonging to Navaho Indians foraging in deep snow of severe winter. Late 1967. (Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Roads became impassable. Livestock perished. People were trapped inside their homes.
Begaye remembers the silence, the snow drifts as high as her chest or neck, the heavy dread that increased with every day that passed with no sign of her parents or new baby sister.
With her other siblings away at boarding school, Begaye was left in charge of Frank, the house and the livestock. The two ate peanut butter and dry milk, and Begaye made paths through the snow to the sheep corral or to search for firewood. She instructed Frank to stay in the house because “if he went outside, I knew he would disappear in the snow.”
“I got so scared, so lonely,” she said. “We both would just cry everyday. We cried ourselves to sleep every evening because it seemed like it was going to snow forever.”
According to National Weather Service records, temperatures during the week-long blizzard plunged to 12 below zero in some locations, or as much as 27 degrees below normal.
A total of 84.6 inches of snow fell in Flagstaff between December 13 and 20, meteorologist Cory Mottice said. In the mountainous area of White Mesa, located about 100 miles from Flagstaff, the snow accumulation likely was similar—or even greater.
On December 18, 1967, after four days of snow, the U.S Air Force began conducting helicopter rescue missions, dropping food and medical supplies to stranded residents. 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 blizzard, 32 deaths had been reported, including three on the Navajo reservation.
Nakai estimated that 60,000 Navajo citizens were affected by the storms—including some that had gone without food for 10 days—and 1 million cows, horses, sheep and other livestock were threatened.
Begaye lost track of time. She doesn’t know how many days she and Frank were alone before the sun finally came out and rescue teams arrived, but she remembers the sound of the helicopters, intrusive after so many days of silence.
Bundles of food and hay dropped from the sky, Begaye said. She grabbed the bowl her family used for bathing and fashioned a rope from flour sacks. After piling the goods into her makeshift sled, Begaye pulled it back to the house.
“We opened one of the cans and found that it was meat,” she said. “We just ate it straight out of the can. We had a feast that day for ourselves.”
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. (Long Beach Independent Press Telegram/AP Images)
Begaye used the bowl again to transport four bales of hay, one at a time, to the sheep corral.
The days plodded on, and though the blizzard had stopped, Begaye’s parents still weren’t home. She remembers four or five sunny days before she heard the familiar sound of the wagon.
“I lost track of days,” she said. “I think we were alone for a week or more and then in the evening one day, my mom and my dad came back in the wagon and we had a little sister.”
Nearly half a century has passed since the blizzard of 1967, but Begaye, who later spent 38 years as a social worker on the Navajo Nation, thinks about that week every time it snows.
“I have grandkids now,” she said. “When I see them being lazy or irresponsible, I tell them when I was their age, I had to do all this on my own. I had to survive.”