Edith E. Swan met Alta Begay Ellsworth in 1959 when Swan was a senior in college and Ellsworth, a Navajo woman from Crownpoint, New Mexico, was entering middle age. Swan was working on an academic project with the American Indian Development program, and she needed an interpreter. The women formed a close friendship that extended over 40 years, until Ellsworth’s death in 1999. They wrote letters, and Swan was able to visit Crownpoint from time to time. Ellsworth, who sometimes introduced Swan to people as the daughter that white people had stolen, gave Swan permission to write her life story, a painstaking project of organization and scholarship that took almost two decades to complete. Making Selves Women: Life and Times of a Navajo Woman, an ethnographic memoir, was released by Double Shoe Publishing Company in 2018.
Swan renders the story in Ellsworth’s own words, using transcripts of 77 90-minute recordings she made of their conversations. Because Ellsworth didn’t relay her stories linearly, Swan reassembled them into a chronology. The text includes parenthetical insertions to indicate Ellsworth’s tone or body language and moments of interpretation by Swan. “In a sense, you will be reading and witnessing her storytelling simultaneously,” Swan writes in the book’s acknowledgments. “Her face is mobil [sic] and very expressive; her account is frequently punctuated with laughter and enactment. Her bodily movements sometimes replace a word or illustrate moods or phrases she has uttered.”
Ellsworth offers vivid descriptions of growing up on the Navajo Reservation, of her elders, her time at an Indian boarding school, and her marriage. There is a detailed passage on a childhood spent raising sheep and goats, shearing them, and getting their wool ready for weaving: “After they were breeding for a while the babies would come. They were so small and soft, I liked to hold and pet them (cuddling and stroking gestures). We often had to nurse the sheep and goats; you need to count each one of them with bottles so they would get enough nourishment and grow strong.”
Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango, Colorado, hosts a reading by and discussion with Swan at 1 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 16, in the Zuni Ballroom (211 Old Santa Fe Trail, 505-988-5531).