Researching Navajo family history — as well as most American Indian family history — can be difficult. Records are scarce. Many Navajos have multiple names. And they are known for being a mobile people, moving around from place to place.
These are some of the roadblocks Suzi Cly Yazzie, 65, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who lives in Bluff, Utah, near the Navajo Nation Reservation, has encountered in researching her family history.
However, within the last few weeks, Yazzie has learned of several grandparents, aunts and uncles who are eligible for temple work — thanks to Steve and Sandy Watrous of Springville, Utah, who are using their spare time during COVID-19 restrictions to help Yazzie with her family history.
“Suzi has no access to the internet in her home or community,” Steve Watrous said. “It is soul-satisfying to realize that light and hope have come into the life of a dear friend who could not do for herself what my wife and I have been able to provide for her.”
The Watrouses have been connected with Yazzie and her family since the late 1970s. They became close when Steve Watrous and Yazzie’s former husband served in a stake mission in Mexican Hat and Monument Valley (near the border of Utah and Arizona). The two families have children who are the same ages.
“We love the Navajo people,” Sandy Watrous said. “We love their culture. We love their sweet and pure desire to help one another.”
Yazzie has six children, 17 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Born in Monument Valley, Yazzie was baptized in Bluff when she was 17.
“February 6, 1972 — that was the greatest day of my life,” Yazzie said of joining the Church with her parents and several siblings.
There was no meetinghouse in Bluff at the time, and the group hadn’t yet become a branch. She remembers the missionaries helping her family stay active during those early years.
Yazzie’s interest in family history was sparked in 2006 after losing her youngest sister at age 40 to what doctors deemed as lupus. “I became concerned about my family members on the other side,” she said.
Since then, she has tried to gather oral histories in interviews with family members, and collect names and birth and death dates of her ancestors.
In August 2018 the Watrouses traveled to Monument Valley to attend the baptism of Yazzie’s grandchildren. Steve and Sandy Watrous began talking to Suzi about her family history. They offered to add information to FamilySearch and help prepare names for temple ordinances.
Yazzie sent letters to the Watrouses detailing the information she gathered from oral histories and what she learned from visiting various government agencies looking for records.
But there were significant gaps in the research.
“The record keeping was so poor in some instances that some of her ancestors showed multiple birth places in different states,” Steve Watrous explained. “Some of her ancestors had traditional descriptive names in the native language. Some didn’t, and some had both Navajo names and Anglo names.”
Yazzie continued her research and sent the Watrouses additional information in December 2019.
“Her information sat on my desk for three months,” Steve Watrous said. “Then came the announcement that temples were to close (due to COVID-19 concerns).”
Steve Watrous, who works as a sealer in the Provo City Center Temple, said he and Sandy have been spending their normal temple hours and more gathering the ancestors of Yazzie.
“This past week my research has enabled me to inform Suzi that eight more of her grandparents, aunts and uncles are eligible to receive the ordinances of salvation and exaltation,” he said.
He is now working to obtain written consent from Yazzie to request permission from FamilySearch to submit the temple ordinances.
“Everything that I find out about my family through the history and whatever Steve finds for me, I’m so excited,” Yazzie said. “I treasure it. It’s just really wonderful.”
The experience has been a “compensatory blessing” for Steve and Sandy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As I’ve gone through her family records and entered these things the best I could into FamilySearch, I’ve just gained such an appreciation for the burdens these people have had over the decades, even to today’s time,” Steve Watrous said.
For example, in one of the letters Yazzie wrote, she told of her grandparents who had to hitch up a team of horses to a wagon to travel from Monument Valley to the nearest hospital in Tuba City, Arizona (about 100 miles). It took two weeks for the round trip.
Sandy Watrous added: “There is just such a joy in helping those who can’t help themselves … and with people like Suzi, to help them become more involved in their own family history.
“This is the Lord’s work and it’s so important,” she continued. “Like President Nelson has said, there’s really nothing more important for us to do right now than to be gathering Israel on both sides of the veil.”
To find resources and information on researching Native American family history, go to FamilySearch’s wiki page. While social distancing, join the FamilySearch live community for a new live social media series.