“It is Just There”: Jesse Holiday, a LDS Navajo Elder

By November 9, 2014

Some historians have told me how they fear that their sources will ?talk back.? As an oral historian, I rely on my sources to ?talk back.? On one level, oral history is a conversation between an inquirer and a source. In my perspective as a Navajo scholar, the relationship between a teaching elder and learning listener interweaves storytelling and oral history. Storytelling represents a form of dialogue, which depends on the rapport between speaker and audience. Among the Dine, our elders serve as storytellers, and simultaneously, public intellectuals, historians, and teachers. Dine scholar Jennifer Nez Denetdale asserts, ?As manifestations of cultural sovereignty, oral histories have proven crucial in projects to decolonize the Navajo Nation and our communities, for the teachings of our ancestors are reaffirmed in the retelling of stories? [1]. When our elders speak, we are obligated to listen and learn.


Considering how one generation passes to the next one, Dine elders are not the same today as the elders of the last generation. Elders continue, however, to fulfill their roles as teachers through storytelling and sharing their past experiences. Unlike past generations, most of our Navajo elders went to some kind of educational institution where they studied English. Many of them learned about Christian religions, and a number of them converted to different Christian faiths. Of that group, some elders joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their youth. A new generation of Dine elders, who have been involved in the LDS Church since childhood, is arising among the Mormon community in Dine Bikeyah (Navajoland). One of these elders, Jesse Holiday, spoke to me in June of 2013, and I listened to learn.

My father introduced me to Jesse. I first met him, after he suffered a serious stroke that debilitated his lower body and required him to use a wheelchair. My father accompanied him from Monument Valley to attend the LDS General Conference in Salt Lake City and a Southwest Indian Mission (SWIM) reunion. He and my father both served in SWIM when Paul Felt was the mission president during the early 1970s.

Jesse?s personal story reflects many common experiences of LDS Navajo elders today that participated in the Indian Student Placement Program (ISPP), the Indian Program at Brigham Young University, and SWIM. The intricacies of his life journey reveal various areas to explore to understand not only LDS but also non-LDS Dine elders? past learning experiences. In a single conversation, Jesse refers to his transient and eclectic schooling background, opportunities for family to support each other and Dine bizaad (Navajo language) survivance at boarding school, differences between joining and converting to the LDS faith as a former ISPP student, and the struggles over sacred space and place of worship among local Dine? communities [2].

As I was working on a book manuscript with Jessie Embry about Navajo Mormons in the twentieth century, I visited the LDS Monument Valley congregation and discussed parts of my research with them. Jesse, a member of the congregation, started sharing some of his experiences with me at that time.

He lives in sight of the new Monument Valley chapel building that opened to the congregation in 2012. For decades before, the branch met in Mexican Hat, Utah, about twenty miles away from Monument Valley off of the Navajo reservation.

As I spoke with Jesse Holiday at his home about his memories of joining the LDS Church and going to the Intermountain Indian Boarding School, he looked towards the chapel. With watering eyes, he said, ?It is just there.? He added sheepishly, ?I have no more excuses not to go.? Jesse was baptized and confirmed a member of the LDS Church as a child, participated in ISPP, went to BYU, and served a Mormon mission, but he became less active in the church until the opening of the Monument Valley chapel. He reflected on his childhood and the role of the church in his youth.

The following includes selections from our dialogue concerning his early experiences with the LDS Church:

?Farina King [FK]: How did you first become involved in the LDS Church?

Jesse Holiday [JH]: I think they [Mormons] never taught me. I just kind of went in [the church] without [teachings]?. By accident.

FK: How did you start going to the Intermountain Boarding School in Brigham City, Utah?

JH: They didn?t have any high school [in Monument Valley], so we had to go there [to Intermountain Boarding School]. [I went] about 1958 to 1959. I went for one year. My older sister went too. She had one more year left [of school]. I think she went two to three years [there]. People here [in Monument Valley] went to Intermountain or Shiprock or way out there? Chemawa, Oregon? my older sister went there. They went to eighth grade. There was no high school. They [the students] got jobs and started working wherever. My sister was a Navajo teacher. She taught at Rough Rock, the first Navajo learning school.

FK: What memories of Intermountain do you have?

JH: They had a nice swimming pool [at Intermountain]. It was open weekends. I hit my head on the diving board. They had to get me out, but they didn?t take me to the hospital. My family was in Shiprock. I was eleven years old then [when I was at Intermountain]?.

FK: Did you go to the LDS Church while you were at Intermountain?

JH: I just went to sacrament [in Intermountain] for water and bread, for food. I was hungry around noon. I had one hundred percent attendance. The LDS social workers would take us to square dances, lasting all night, and then they would ask [about church]?.

My sister was a translator. My parents only spoke Navajo. [She translated for my parents].

FK: Did you go to other LDS activities?

Just church and boy scouts about every week. In boy scouts, we had camp outs by the mountains. One time it rained and the tent fell. I was too young for seminary. When I was in Salt Lake City, I went to early morning seminary?. I was baptized in Tuba City, but I didn?t know about Church. [I did] not [know] much about Mormons. Placement dawned more?.

At home, [there was] no church to go to. My dad was a medicine man. He passed on in 1972. We relied on him. My mom passed on when I was one year old. My dad had no wife for six years. My step-mom didn?t like me. My dad gave me to my sister?.

[During my mission in SWIM,] we were the first or second ones here [in Monument Valley] in the LDS Church. We were pretty successful [as missionaries], because we spoke Navajo [on the Southwest Indian Mission]. Paul Felt was my SWIM President. He passed on?.

I learned most English at Tuba City and Kayenta, but I never forgot my language.

In Art classes, I would get an ?A.? Art pulled me out?. In local schools, [the children] can come home and speak [Navajo] but learn English at school. When we were in the forms, we spoke our language. We never forgot our language. We spoke only English in class. In Kayenta, they would hit our heads with brooms [if we spoke Navajo]?.

My sister would take care of me at Intermountain. She was allowed when she was free. She would bring me food, treats. She worked for a local lady and got paid. She was a couple years older (three years or so). She was fourteen. It helped with my sister [being there in Intermountain]. That?s how I never forgot Navajo. We spoke together?.

I didn?t think of myself as Mormon. I didn?t know about the sacrament. They never taught me. I was just there. In Placement, I learned more [about the LDS Church]. My foster dad moved me from deacon to elder. [During Placement] there were only five Navajos in a mostly Anglo ward. When there was a party, maybe twenty-five were Navajo. I was in Tuba City in 1958. I went to Placement in 1960. I went to the Intermountain Boarding School in 1959?.?

After interviewing Jesse Holiday, his niece joined our discussion. She described a landmark just beside her uncle?s home as a ?prayer rock.? She explained, ?On top of that rock, they say our ancestors prayed, especially during the Long Walk era. I want to pray up there someday.? To Jesse Holiday, two places of worship surround him, the prayer rock and the Monument Valley LDS chapel. Since his childhood and youth, he has gained a devout faith in the LDS gospel but stresses that he does not forget his language and ?where [he] has come from? [3].

[1] Jennifer Nez Denetdale, ?The Value of Oral History on the Path to Dine/Navajo Sovereignty,? in Dine? Perspectives: Revitalizing and Reclaiming Navajo Thought, ed. Lloyd L. Lee (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014), 80.

[2] To understand the concept of ?survivance,? see Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999) and Gerald Vizenor, Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

[3] Jesse Holliday, Interview by Farina King, Monument Valley, Utah, June 25, 2013. His niece came to visit Holliday, as we concluded our interview.

Article filed under Biography Cultural History Memory Miscellaneous Race


  1. Thank you, Farina, and thanks to Jesse Holliday for sharing these memories. It’s wonderful that you’re helping preserve these vital connections to the past.

    Can I ask an awfully naive question? Why non-Navajo names like Holliday? Did ISPP students change their names, or is it due to marriages in previous generations, or both? (And now I’m starting to wonder if the subject of your interview is related to Doc Holliday, but that’s getting far afield.)

    Comment by Amy T — November 10, 2014 @ 9:48 am

  2. Thanks, Farina. And thanks to Jesse.

    Comment by janiecej — November 10, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

  3. Thanks, Farina.

    Comment by Saskia — November 10, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

  4. Jesse’s family already changed or received the last name Holliday by the time of his birth. ISPP did not officially practice name changing as some former boarding schools did. The history of the “Angloization” of Native American names is complicated and varies widely. My grandfather, for example, took his English name while working for the railroad. Many Navajos took common Anglo surnames such as Brown, King, and Smith. Others kept forms of their names but adjusted to English such as Begay and Yazzie from “biye” (his son) and “yazhi” (little/small/young).

    There are many members of the Holliday family in the Monument Valley region, so if Doc Holliday is Dine and from that area it is likely he is related to Jesse.

    I also thank Jesse.

    Comment by Farina — November 10, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

  5. Someone just asked me about how Jesse’s experiences compare to those of Jim Dandy, as featured in Robert McPherson’s book. I recommend McPherson’s recent books on Dandy and Navajo traditional teachings from elders.

    In response to the question, I would say that my interview with Jesse focused on his personal childhood experiences. In that way, there are many similarities such as coming from the southeastern region of Utah and becoming involved in the ISPP and other church programs. In the book, Dandy discusses his experiences with remembering and practicing ancestral Navajo teachings.

    Jesse is a talented artist, and he has illustrated themes and parts from ancestral teachings in his work. I hope to talk to him more about such connections between the art and Navajo knowledge/teachings.

    Comment by Farina — November 10, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

  6. Great stuff, Farina.

    Comment by Ben P — November 10, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

  7. As stated before, this article seems like a tribute to Navajo historian, Robert S. McPherson?s work; Navajo Tradition, Mormon Life: The Autobiography and Teachings of Jim Dandy. McPherson?s work goes into greater detail about Jim Dandy?s relationship between two worlds, the Navajo and LDS. Dandy was raised by his father and grandfather, both medicine men. Through it all he converted to the Church, attended the LDS Placement Program, served an LDS mission, and remains ?active? in the Church.

    What is your definition of an ?Elder?? Is it just someone who is older? Or is it someone having authority by virtue of age and experience? (Merriam-Webster definitions) As you stated ?Jesse?s personal story reflects many common experiences?? What makes his story stand out?

    At the end of the fourth paragraph you tease us by stating that Holiday, ?struggles over sacred space and place of worship?? Nothing much is said about this idea until the last paragraph once again. It would be interesting to discussion this idea more. This is also similar to McPherson?s book, Sacred Land, Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners Region and some other works by McPherson. This idea of ?prayer rock? is interesting and I think deserves more attention. There is the Navajo tsenadjihih (shrine) which means, ?picking up and putting on stones.? These were placed next to trails and people would make prayers and offerings for safe travel. What exactly is Holiday?s niece describing as the ?prayer rock? in your last paragraph?

    In response to Amy T?s question, the Monument Valley Navajos with the Last name Holiday, are divided on the origins of their last name. In no way shape or form are they related to John Henry ?Doc? Holliday from Georgia. Some of the Holiday?s of Monument Valley say that the name came from a U.S. soldier that was nice to them. The other Holiday?s say that it came from some LDS miners who got lost and were having a hard time with the Navajo name of the man who saved them and eventually named him Holiday. There are recorded oral histories to support the later story.

    The Anglicization of Navajo names came mainly from the U.S. Indian census rolls, during the 1930-40s, guidelines came from Washington in regards to distinguishing families and making them easier to pronounce for Euro-Americans. Before this time, Anglo and Spanish names came from traders, work or from a variety of religious denominations in the area.

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — November 10, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

  8. “Elder” has layers of meanings, which I evoke in this post concerning Jesse. I use “elder” to refer to someone older in age and more experienced, which gives him certain authority as a teacher. I would like to develop the concept of teaching elders in the Navajo context, which McPherson emphasizes in his book “Dineji Na’Nitin.”

    As I wrote this post, I thought of the Navajo four directions and connections to life journeys. In our interview, Jesse took me through the four directions of his life from infancy, childhood, adulthood, to that moment of old age (East, South, West, North). Elders and old age are markers of the North as well as Sishasin (faith prayers and hope).

    Concerning the discussion on sacred space, someone could write a book on the subjects that I indicated. I was referring to the debates among Navajos over the construction and opening of LDS chapels on the Navajo reservation, of which the Monument Valley chapel was part.

    Jesse’s niece referred to a large natural landmark, not quite a mesa or butte. Thank you for explaining the prayer rocks and changes in Navajo names, Mr. Smallcanyon.

    Comment by Farina — November 11, 2014 @ 8:26 pm


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