Grandma Elsie

Grandma Elsie

Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 66
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3420-5.ch002


By all appearances, Grandma Elsie is the prototypical traditional Navajo matriarch. She is a monolingual Navajo speaker. She has lived in the same house for over 50 years without basic amenities such as electricity, running water, or telephone. She has woven rugs since she was a child, and the proceeds from the occasional sale supplements her monthly social security checks as her only sources of income. Indeed, her way of life does not markedly differ from the way all Navajos subsisted a century earlier. This chapter introduces Grandma Elsie.
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Grandma Elsie may remind those familiar with the Navajo Film Project of Sam Yazzie, the Navajo elder whose often cited query regarding the welfare of his sheep still resonates as an ethical mandate for all researchers. David MacDougall (1992), however, correctly asserts that academics have been (and still are) blowing the question way out of proportion: “That famous remark of Sam Yazzie, the Navajo elder, to John Adair and Sol Worth…is not some sage indictment of exploitative academic practices but an acknowledgment of differing cultural practices (p. 34 cited in Chalfen, 1997, p. 290). It is all too tempting to fall into this essentializing trap, whereby she is no longer a living, breathing individual but, by virtue of being relegated into a “savage slot” (Trouillot, 1991), is turned into an icon.

In order to prevent readers from attributing their own preconceptions to the text, I want to dispel any romantic notions from the very beginning. The details from a recent event should suffice to jolt readers out of their hypnotic haze. Being widowed for more than two decades has not prevented Grandma Elsie from making clandestine romantic rendezvous—or “booty calls”—to her late husband’s cousin, who lives nearby. However, “Little Tom,” as he is known in the community, apparently found another mistress on the side, a much “younger” woman in her early fifties. One day, during a heated argument, he decided to parade his new girlfriend in front of Elsie in an attempt to make her jealous, at which point, this demure septuagenarian proceeded to whack her nemesis over the head with a two-by-four. My purpose in sharing this embarrassing episode is to demonstrate that the actual lives of most contemporary Indians—even so-called “traditional” elders—are closer to The Jerry Springer Show than Dances with Wolves (Wilson & Costner, 1990).

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