50 Years Ago: Boys freeze after running away from boarding school

The Bureau of Indian Affairs reported that two boys who ran away from the Crownpoint Boarding School had died after they tried to walk to their homes some 50 miles away.

A BIA press release stated that the two boys, identified as Ronald Yazzie, 9, and Willie B. Yazzie, 13, were found frozen to death on Jan. 13 about 30 miles northeast of Crownpoint. They were the sons of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Yazzie of Chaco Canyon.

A third brother, Ray Yazzie, 12, survived the night during which temperatures dipped down to an estimated 10 degrees below zero.

Al Adams, superintendent of the Navajo Police Department, later said that “this was the first incident this winter of schoolboys being found frozen to death after running away from a boarding school,” indicating that this was not an unusual occurrence on the Navajo Reservation.

BIA officials said the three brothers ran away from the boarding school during recess when temperatures were in the mid-30s. The three were dressed in jeans, shorts, shoes and light jackets.

Adams said the three had run away from the school in the past and had been caught and returned so search parties began their search in the area where the boys had been found in the past.

But realizing that this may happen, the boys, said Adams, bypassed the roads and went off-road and traveled cross-country.

The search for the boys began about two hours after they had been reported missing and continued through most of the night. When no trace of the three boys had been found by 3 a.m. the day afterwards, the search was called off until 7 a.m. when there was more light.

By 3 a.m. the searchers knew that the boys had come up with a new route to get home and they planned to start early in the morning with more searchers and dogs to see if they could find them.

Adams said the searchers were afraid that even by this time it may be too late given the temperatures and reports of what the three were wearing when they left the school.

“Our only hope,” said Adams, “was that the boys found shelter somewhere and were able to make a fire.”

Ray Yazzie later told school authorities that when he woke up the next morning, he could not wake up his two brothers so he made his way to a nearby road and was picked up by an instructional aide from the school.

He was taken back to the school. The aide informed school officials where he picked up the boy and a search team was immediately sent there with Ray Yazzie to find his brothers. But when they did find them, it was too late.

Stewart Silentman, a Navajo Police officer who participated in the search, said the three brothers had just returned to the school after being home for Christmas vacation.

“They were lonesome for home and just took off,” he said.

Later reports said that Ray Yazzie was being treated at the Crownpoint Indian Health Service Hospital for frostbite and exposure.

Speaking of press releases, Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai issued one on Jan. 12 expressing the deep sorrow of the tribe in hearing of the passing of Fr. Vin Hagel, a Franciscan missionary who died a couple of days before.

Hagel was one of the better-known priests on the reservation who had worked on the Navajo Reservation in both New Mexico and Arizona for some 19 years.

He was only 54 when he died but had worked on a number of projects that improved the lives of many Navajos, Nakai said.

It’s uncertain if Nakai ever met Hagel but the chairman said he had heard a lot of good things about him over the years and knew that his he had a “good heart” for helping the Navajo people.

According to his obituary, Hagel worked as a missionary at St. Michaels from1940 to 1943, at Chinle from 1943 to 1944, at Shiprock from 1944 to 1947, and back again to St. Michaels where he was named the superior for all Navajo missions, a position he served in from 1948 to 1954.

Many of the projects that Hagel undertook for the Navajo people are still around today.

His accomplishments include: A rectory and community center in Shiprock; a chapel at Sawmill; a dispensary at Lukachukai; a rectory and chapel at Klagetoh; a remodeling of the chapel at Greasewood; and the first phase of a chapel and rectory at Pinon.


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