Looking for my family

Orphaned at 2, Navajo octogenarian seeks the family he has never known

By Chee Brossy
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 25, 2009

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Henry Yabah, 80, of Corpus Christi, Texas, poses in front of what used to be the Good Shepard Mission Orphanage in Fort Defiance. Yabah, who was orphaned at age 2, is looking for his Navajo family.

BOTTOM: Henry Yabah, right, is shown with two friends in front of the dormitory at Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance around 1931 when Yabah was about 3 years old. His friends are Jimmy Begay, left, and Walter Bishop. (Courtesy photo - Henry Yabah)

Henry Yabah put his hands on his hips and leaned forward, looking at a map of the Navajo Nation on a wall in the Navajo Times office.

He chewed at a toothpick absentmindedly as he looked at the map, his eyes concealed behind a pair of sunglasses he wears both indoors and out to protect what is left of his vision. A veteran, he said his eyes went bad working under the fluorescent lighting on military ships.

Yabah was intent on deciphering the secrets of the map, his body still, save for the dancing toothpick.

"Where are we at?" Yabah asked.

I pointed to Window Rock on the map.

He wanted to know where Monument Valley was, so I showed him that, too.

"Wow," he shook his head finally. "Look at all that territory."

There was no trace of a Navajo accent in Yabah's speech. Instead there was a hint of south Texas.

It is plain that he hasn't been to the reservation in a while and that he has forgotten much of what it is like. Yabah acknowledged as much in an interview June 17, saying he's got bad memory and "can't remember a lot of these things."

Things like losing his mother at the age of 2, or where exactly he lost contact with his siblings, or even how many siblings he has.

Orphaned at such a young age, he remembers nothing of his parents, and only bits and pieces of his formative years at the Good Shepherd Mission Orphanage in Fort Defiance.

He now lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, and is 80 years old.

Yabah left the reservation behind 62 years ago and never looked back - that is until recently.

Spurred on by his wife of 31 years, Yabah is making an attempt to find out where he comes from and who his people are. So far the search has only turned up a few scraps of paper and the census numbers of his long-lost siblings.

And unfortunately, his siblings have stayed lost.

From 'Rocky Point'

Yabah was orphaned in a time before the Indian Child Welfare Act, when government agents would quickly round up parentless children and send them to the nearest orphanage, often making little or no attempt to contact extended family members who might take the children in.

In his file at the mission, Yabah is said to have come from a place called "Rocky Point" near Gallup.

There was an old trading post west of Gallup known as the Rocky Point Trading Post and he believes that's where he lived.

The file also says his mother was deceased and his father could not be found at the time he was brought to the orphanage.

But besides that, precious little is known of how Yabah came to the orphanage, or who brought him there. He certainly doesn't remember those details.

He stayed at the mission from 1930 until 1942, when at 13 he went to school at Fort Wingate.

He dropped out in 1945 and struck out for California with a few Navajo friends from the school. There they found odd jobs to support themselves, at one point stacking ice used to preserve produce in railcars.

At 19, Yabah enlisted in the Army, where he spent the next 22 years and fought in two wars before being discharged in 1969.

By that time he had lost contact with any other Navajos and settled down in Corpus Christi, the last place he was stationed.

There he met Robin, 20 years his junior, who he married and lives with to this day.

Yabah lived a good life, caring for his wife's children from a previous relationship and working to provide for them. He repaired houses and then was an aircraft mechanic at a Navy base.

He kept busy, always working, until 2005 when, at age 77, he had to finally quit his job as a mechanic when his body began to break down.

By that time Yabah had had both knees as well as a hip replaced, and his eyesight was failing. He also does not hear very well.

All his ailments can be traced to his insatiable appetite for work and the unforgiving environments he worked in.

Yabah's tireless work habits can be attributed to his affinity for jobs that required manual dexterity, and probably also to growing up a member of an age group lauded by some as "the Greatest Generation," in part for its work ethic.

But possibly Yabah needed to occupy himself at all times so he didn't have to think about anything else, like his missing family. It makes sense in much the same way that he needed the military to be his stand-in family.

"I can't sit down for long periods," he said. "I can't watch TV all that much, I have to be doing something."

Even now that he is retired, Yabah works odd jobs such as repairing antique furniture. He also has taken up building miniature stagecoaches.

Through those many years, Yabah didn't go looking for his lost family. By his account he thought about it, but believed there wasn't much that could be done.

The only place he called home on the reservation was the old orphanage - there was no real point in returning for that.

But according to his wife, Yabah did talk about his lack of family sometimes. She eventually took matters into her own hands to help him reconnect.

"He's always telling me 'I have nobody,'" Robin Yabah said. "I thought of going to Oprah Winfrey but I didn't think I could drag Henry in front of a TV camera."

So she did the next best thing and called the Good Shepherd Mission. That led to the census numbers of three siblings, two sisters and one brother, whom Yabah hardly remembers.

Fitting in

Henry Yabah is not a gregarious man. He doesn't talk much unless spoken to. This could be because his hearing is not so good, but his wife describes him as shy, and he admits she's not the only who says so.

"It's from being Indian, I guess," he said.

He could have a point: In a world where you are the only "Indian" around, you are bound to stick out, and Yabah is not one to seek that attention. And after leaving Dinétah, neither did he have a family to call him home to a place where most people looked like him.

But in the setting of Window Rock, Yabah does not stand out as different. He is an elderly Navajo man with a denim jacket, black baseball cap and sunglasses - someone you see walking beside the road with his thumb out, or riding a Harley-Davidson, or eating fry bread and stew at the Navajo Nation Fair.

His hair is long, his skin is brown, he wears faded black T-shirts with screen-printed images of wolves and eagles.

It's almost like this is his version of "Indian." In the absence of a Navajo culture, Yabah defined what it was to be Indian on his own.

Although Yabah can't remember much of his family, he does have some fond memories of growing up at the Good Shepherd Mission. He recalled some of those on a recent visit there.

The mission has changed since Yabah left in 1942. There are new stone buildings where before there was nothing.

The wooden fence that used to surround the property is gone. The rock wall where he carved his name at the entrance has been taken down.

But the Episcopal church is still there, as is the stone building that was his dormitory.

Yabah has an old picture of himself and two friends, Jimmy Begay and Walter Bishop, in front of the dorm, his only picture of that time. They are young boys smiling at the camera, dressed in identical jackets and pants.

"There was a farm and apple fields over that way," Yabah said as we walked the mission grounds, pointing to the east.

"We used to walk to Fort Defiance every day over that hill right there," he added, pointing to a rolling hill to the west.

"I remember we used to steal apples at the orchards in Fort Defiance."

He pointed to the rock bluffs east of Fort Defiance and said he used to wander and play there with friends.

But if there were good memories here, why didn't he come back?

For Yabah, leaving the mission behind was about survival. He couldn't come back to this place after he was grown because it wasn't for him anymore.

"I just did what I had to do, then turned my life elsewhere," Yabah said.

And what about his siblings and the rest of his family? Did he ever try to find out who they were?

"I never bothered about my family," he said. "My mind is blank on that part of me. I didn't try to investigate."

Better late than never

Yabah wants to find his family, but acknowledges the chances are slim. There is no one left at the mission from the time Yabah was there. There is no orphanage there anymore.

"It seems to me this should have been taken care of long ago," Yabah said wistfully while walking the mission grounds.

But as the years went by the possibility seemed less and less likely. And after the wars Yabah didn't do much traveling. He found that he likes his solitude more - he is uneasy in crowds because of the memories of combat it brings up, so he gets out less.

But in the end the stubborn persistence of his wife won out and they took up the search in earnest.

The Yabahs took the census numbers of his siblings - Patsy, Thelma and Jackie - to the Navajo Nation's Vital Records Office, but officials there were unable to release the files because of the Navajo Nation's privacy laws.

The Yabahs did learn his siblings have never used their census numbers, indicating they probably lead - or led - lives outside Indian Country as well.

Despite the dead ends, Yabah and his wife are hopeful someone will come forward with information about his family.

After all, it's happened before, as in the true story that inspired the film, "Return of Navajo Boy," where a long-lost Navajo man is reunited with his Monument Valley family.

Yabah confessed to dreams of finding his family and returning to live on the reservation, but he knows that is a long shot. 

He has a few more days here on the reservation, which he'll spend sightseeing. He has already visited Canyon de Chelly, and also spoke of visiting Monument Valley.

Having never had the chance before, Yabah wants to finally see "all that territory."

To contact the Yabahs: 361-906-7041, or write to 438 Polaris Place, Corpus Christi, TX 78418.

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