”As a guest in a land where most white people are regarded with suspicion, always remember that your acceptance by The People will depend on your ability to accept with dignity, sympathy and honesty the Navajo way of life.”— Louisa Wetherill, giving advice to a visiting journalist
Louisa Wetherill was not a trained linguist or ethnologist, yet she pursued her interest in the Navajo culture with diligence and a passion that attracted both scientists and artists. In the early 1900s, she researched a history of Navajo blanket designs; she translated tribal legends and songs; she collected 300 medicinal and ceremonial herbs used by the Navajo; she compiled a list of the 56 tribal clans she had identified; and she amassed an impressive collection of sand-painting drawings. Today, she is given credit for being one of the first people who recognized the need to understand and preserve the culture of the Navajo people.
Mary Louise Wade, who would later be known as Louisa, was born September 2, 1877, in Wells, Nevada, the daughter of U.S. Army Captain Jack Wade and his wife, Julia France Rush Wade. When she was about two years old, Louisa traveled with her family through Kayenta, Arizona, located about 20 miles south of the Utah border on the Navajo Indian reservation. She could not have known it at the time, but Kayenta was to be her home for most of her adult life.
The family continued on to Mancos, Colorado, where they established their home. About the same time, another family, the Wetherills, also moved to Mancos. ”It was there that the destinies of the two families became intertwined – the Quaker Wetherills from Pennsylvania and the military Wades originating in Virginia,” wrote Mary Apolline Comfort in her book, Rainbow to Yesterday: The John and Louisa Wetherill Story.
On March 17, 1896, 18-year-old Louisa married John Wetherill. A son, Benjamin, was born on December 26, 1896, and a daughter, Georgia Ida, followed 13 months later on January 17, 1898. In 1900 the young couple took over the management at the Ojo Alamo trading post on the Navajo Reservation, thus beginning a period of 45 years in which they traded and associated with the Navajos. At this isolated trading post, Louisa Wetherill began to learn the Navajo language – first to ensure that she was not cheated by the traders, and later because she had a genuine interest in the people, according to Comfort’s biography.
Mr. Wetherill was often away, and Louisa, along with her young children, explored the desert around the trading post and became acquainted with the Indians. Unfortunately, a severe drought badly affected business at the Ojo Alamo trading post, and soon Mr. Wetherill began looking for a location where they might establish a post of their own. In 1906 the Wetherills set up a trading post at Oljato, or “Place of the Moonlight Water” near the Arizona-Utah border.
In 1910, the couple moved south to Kayenta, where they opened another trading post and began doing business from a rather unsubstantial-looking collection of tents and wagons. The Wetherills later built a lodge at Kayenta, and it became a stopping off place for many important visitors.
”The Wetherills’ guest books at Kayenta during the 1920s and 30s were filled with the names of scientists and students, writers and artists, Easterners getting glimpses of the last frontier, and other persons intensely interested in Indian lore,” Comfort said. Teddy Roosevelt and Zane Grey were among their visitors.
Louisa’s knowledge of the Navajos attracted the attention of the general public as well as scholars. She became a popular speaker, and her lectures on the Navajos were in demand on the West Coast.
Around 1906, she began her collection of herbs, which eventually numbered more than 300 specimens. She made notes about which plants the Navajos used for food, healing purposes or in sacred ceremonies.
She also collected sand paintings, and by 1909 had amassed a considerable collection. Louisa Wetherill had befriended a medicine man named Yellow Singer and persuaded him to reproduce the paintings on paper, using crayons.
Louisa Wetherill also collected and translated the legends and folk tales of the Navajos. ”Relatives have told that it was not an uncommon sight in the summer to see as many as one hundred Indians sitting on the lawn under the trees at Kayenta, telling stories, with Louisa in their midst, laughing and chatting as volubly as any of them,” Comfort wrote.
Among her original translations was “Prayer to the Big Black Bear,” a prayer to ward off evil. The folk tales she translated include “The Woman Whose Nose Was Cut off Twelve Times,” “How the Raven Got His Coat,” “Story of the First Lie,” and “Creation of the Burro.” It is not surprising that her children preferred these stories to Mother Goose rhymes.
Louisa’s knowledge of the language helped her to become an intermediary between the military, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajos. The Indians trusted her, and because they believed she would be fair, they abided by her judgment.
In 1918, Louisa won national recognition for the drive she made on the reservation to help the Red Cross war effort overseas. Although the Navajos had no money to donate, they gave a sheep or a goat from their flocks as their contribution to the war effort.
Beginning in 1921, Louisa made a number of trips to Mexico, intent on proving a theory that certain Navajo clans had migrated northward. Although she intended to write a history of the Navajo people, she never completed the project and whatever material she collected on her trips has been lost.
From the 1920s on, Louisa suffered from a variety of illnesses and was unable to continue life at her old pace. Her husband died in November 1944; lonely and unhappy, she died less than a year later, on September 18, 1945, in Prescott.