MAGDALENA and ALAMO, NM When 78-year-old Isabelle Pino-Thomas
was a little girl, she herded sheep to the Saltwater, Two Hill and
Owl Nest areas of the Alamo Navajo Reservation.
"That way my dad knew where I was at -- with the sheep," Thomas
said identifying herself as a member of the Apache clan.
Historically, Alamo people named certain places, like the areas
Thomas took her sheep to pasture, as a way to find people or animals
or to remember something that happened there.
When the weather was good, Thomas said she walked two miles
across the dry banks of the Rio Salado to go to the Alamo day school.
When she wasn't at school or herding sheep in the high desert
canyons and mountains of south central New Mexico, she watched her
mother, Dora Guerro-Pino, create weavings in the distinctive double-weave,
eye dazzler style of the Alamo Navajo.
"It's thicker," Thomas said in comparison to weaving in Navajo
communities 200 miles north on the main Navajo Reservation. But,
Thomas was quick to say that her mother didn't give her step-by-step
"I just watched," she said adding that when her mother thought
she was ready, she took her to the next step in the learning process.
"From the day my mom told me to separate the wool, I learned everything
from her and started making yarns and strings."
Thomas said it was a hard life living off the land without running
water and electricity, but it taught her how to be productive and
"Weaving helps you to think clearly and gets your mind off of
whatever is bothering you," she said.
Like an abrupt shift in the high-desert Alamo weather, Thomas's
life changed dramatically in 1947 at age 12 when she was sent to
a boarding school in Albuquerque about 170 miles away from Alamo.
"It was lonely. I missed my parents, my sisters, my brother
and my sheep," Thomas," she said.
At the Albuquerque Indian School, she earned her high school
degree and then went on to get training as a health aide and child
care worker. A few years after her training was complete around
1960, she secured a job in Magdalena, N.M. at the dormitories where
Alamo students lived while attending school, a place where Thomas
worked for 26 years.
While taking care of Alamo children as young as six, Thomas
made sure that they had everything they needed - food, clothes,
health care, help with their homework, love and attention.
"I was like their mom. At nighttime, the children had nightmares
not being home with their mothers. I was there for them," she said
adding that she spoke to them in Navajo. She said she also showed
them how to weave, teaching them the designs, patterns and processes,
like her mother showed her. In the process, they also learned how
to find the nuts, roots and plants needed to color the yarn.