50 years ago: Search for lost sisters ends happily

A massive search for two Navajo grade school students who spent the night in sub-zero temperatures during a blizzard ended happily when Navajo police officers found them the following morning.

According to the Navajo Times and other media outlets, fifth-grader Annie Montoya, 10, and her second-grade sister, Lilia Clara Montoya, 8, both of Tinnian, New Mexico, had left the Crownpoint Boarding School on Jan. 4 at about 4 p.m.

They started walking cross country to their home. The two girls had returned to the school about 1 p.m. that afternoon from Christmas vacation but decided to walk back home because they were lonely and wanted to see their family.

When school officials reported them missing an hour later, Navajo police were joined by more than 30 employees of the BIA and the Public Health Service in a search that continued throughout the night.

AP quoted searchers saying the search was hampered by the extreme cold and the blizzard conditions. Several cars were also reported getting stuck in the mud during the search.

The two girls were found at 7:23 a.m. the following morning by Junior Antone and Leonard Brown, both Navajo police officers. Both had been working most of the night.

“I wouldn’t let Lilia go to sleep,” Annie said shortly after being rescued. “We just kept walking around and stamping our feet. We would rest a while and then get up and do the same thing again,” she was reported to have said to Charles Romero, acting superintendent of the Eastern Navajo Agency.

The girls’ mother and several of her relatives also took part in the search while her father Joe Montoya was working in Nevada at the time for the Santa Fe Railway.

Antone said Navajo police began searching for the girls about 6 p.m. and kept it up for about four hours when their involvement ended because of vehicles that got stuck in the snow.

He said the police were able to get better vehicles and continued to search for the two girls until about 2 a.m. when the search was halted again due to the limited visibility of less than two feet caused by the blizzard conditions. Many of the police abandoned their vehicles and continued the search on foot.

The place where the two girls were found was a little over eight miles from the boarding school but it was not on a trail so it was difficult to say just how much walking the girls had done that night.

Both girls were reported to be in good condition, but Annie was treated for several days for frostbite on her feet.

The big political news this week 50 years ago centered around the opening session for the Navajo Tribal Council for 1967.

The council had a total of 61 items on the agenda but instead of addressing some of these items, the council spent most of the 10-hour session debating the question of whether they should be meeting at all, since Raymond Nakai’s inauguration for his second term was still two weeks away and all of the council delegates who were to replace the Old Guard on the council were still waiting to be sworn in.

But the Old Guard members who had been elected out of office wanted one more council meeting under their belt and since they still had enough members to control any vote, the Old Guard had its way.

But that didn’t mean that Nakai forces on the council didn’t try to get the meeting postponed. They talked for more than five hours trying to get even one Old Guard member to come to their side.

But it was not to be, as some 60 percent of the council voted to reject the postponement.

One of the reasons why the Nakai forces wanted a postponement was because one of the items up for discussion during the winter session was the belief, made by anti-Nakai forces on the council, that Nakai stole the election from his challenger Sam Billison and they wanted to hear a report on what irregularities in the election that investigators discovered.

Since the Old Guard controlled abut 60 percent of the votes on the council still – that would go down to less than 50 percent when the new council members took office in two weeks – there was a fear that the Old Guard would find some excuse to void the election.

Some details of the investigation had been leaked to the press in the last two weeks and although the investigators reportedly found some problems – Billison supporters reportedly were denied the right to vote for some lame excuse or another – the number of such reports was so small that it would not affect the overall outcome of the election.

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Categories: 50 Years Ago

About Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.