Marjorie Thomas, affectionately known as 'Grandma' by the young people in her community, is an 85 year-old Navajo from Chinle, Arizona, who now lives on the same plot of land she grew up on. Her father died when she was 2 years old, and her mother owned livestock in Chinle, resulting in them moving there after his death. Growing up, she says, there was nothing to do aside from herd sheep, and most of her youth was spent with the elderly. "It's like not having teenage years. I didn't do things other kids were doing, there was no one to do it with."
She went to Chinle boarding school, and only returned home once per year. In 4th grade her mother enrolled her at Ganado Mission School which she attended through 9th grade. This is where she met her future husband, Leo Thomas. At Ganado, Marjorie wasn't allowed to speak her native language of Navajo: “When I went to the boarding school we were punished for speaking Navajo. I made up my mind not to have something that was mine taken away from me.”
After briefly running away from home, she returned and lied to her mother that the girls at school were violent towards her. She said that she wanted to go to a school in Phoenix; her high-school sweetheart, Leo, happened to also be in Phoenix. When she arrived she wrote to Leo, and got a letter from the place she had just left: Ganado - He had returned to the mission, and she was there in Phoenix. "I was so upset at him, I just really told him off. He was the reason why I went to Phoenix."
When Marjorie was 29, she was reunited with Leo when they started working at the same place in New Mexico. Leo proposed, but said she needed to be a high-school graduate. At the time, being a high school graduate wasn't important to her. "I loved him and I was gonna marry him, so I went back to school, and I graduated." Leo pushed her through college, and she eventually earned a Masters from the University of New Mexico in Educational Leadership. Leo and Marjorie married and lived in Tuca for the next 30 years. She has 4 boys, 2 daughters, and an adopted niece.
Despite having previously felt that graduating school wasn't important, Marjorie became a teacher, passionate about helping Navajo children to get the best education possible. She wanted to teach her students that it was easy for them to read and write in English, just like in Navajo. She started teaching this in her classrooms, giving programs out to parents who all became interested, and wanted their children to be in her class. Marjorie realised that there's more to a class than 'just that lesson': "We're teaching so teaching can continue." When she realised that other school principals were not going a good enough job, Marjorie decided she needed to become a principal herself, in order to improve the education system, and the Navajo Language Program was born.
One of her former students recalls how every morning they would do the pledge of allegiance in English, and then in Navajo. Afterwards, every day, she would have the class repeat 'You're special, you're unique, and you count.' Her former student says, "Everyone remembers that little quote from her."
One year, a murder of a high school student shook the community. At a town meeting the parents placed the blame on the younger generation however no one came forward with a solution. Marjorie, now retired, spoke up: "We are at fault. Each of us as parents are responsible for our children from the minute they come into this world. Our communities children are all our responsibility." She decided that something needed to be done to help the struggling Navajo youth, and started a campaign to raise money for the Central Navajo Youth Opportunity Coalition, and to build a youth centre.
Marjorie 'Grandma' Thomas started a yearly 80 mile, 4 day walk from Chinle to Window Rock. The first time she did the walk, supported by her cane, people driving past would stop and ask her if she needed a ride. She kept on walking, with children surrounding her and joining along the way. Marjorie didn't realise that so many would be enthusiastic about the journey, and as the years went on, the walk became more and more popular. People would meet them with food and water, and other walkers would cook along the way, they all camped together - A real sense of community spirit.
Each year, her age made the trip a little harder, and in 2005 she was hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion. The doctors wanted her to stop the walk, but she insisted she had to finish. In ongoing years, she would spend more time in a vehicle, surrounded by her walking supporters. Every year, she said, would be her last walk, but it never was. Aside from 2009, when she was nowhere to be seen...
Marjorie's husband, Leo, was a big help and support to her, pushing her to achieve her considerable potential. In preparation for the yearly walk, he would start buying crates of water around Christmas, and he'd stock up throughout Winter and Spring. In 2008, Marjorie lost her husband, one of her biggest supporters, and in 2009 she couldn't do the walk. "Last year, I couldn't do it. I missed that part, he wasn't there with all that support." That year, the walk-a-thon was not continued, which she says was frustrating. "We need this for the kids. Something needs to be done. Even if the youth started meeting on their own, I would join them and help. I can't do much more at my age."
Information on Marjorie 'Grandma' Thomas is limited in the last 6 years, and she suffered from diabetes and arthritis, making it harder for her to complete the yearly journey. For many years, she battled through, even being pushed in a wheelchair at some points. However, she always walked to the finish line. Her original dream is gone, and the town of Chinle has moved on - The multi-building youth center that Marjorie originally imagined over 20 years ago was either out of reach due to not raising enough funds, or new projects were others by others. The Navajo Nation had many projects however they didn't contribute anything of major significance to Marjorie's fund, therefore she decided she would keep on walking, each summer. Despite the fact that she never raised the $25M needed for a youth centre to be built, she managed to raise over $100,000 for the Navajo youth, and was dedicated to improving the lives and education of youths.
She remained a respected and recognised figure among the people of Chinle, and was always affectionately called 'Grandma'. The last information I found on her was from 2010, and I have not found any later updates. In 2010, she was scheduled to make another walk. If anyone reading does have any more recent news on Marjorie 'Grandma' Thomas, please comment here or e-mail us.
Marjorie marks the final inspirational woman that we've written about this week. Learning about such a wide variety of truly incredible, brilliant women has been fascinating, and I hope that all of you who have read these blogs have felt similarly.
If you're new to the blog, #SheWhoShines is our campaign for International Women's Day on March 8th. Shortly we'll be opening up voting, and we will ask you to vote for your 'favourite' woman from our 10. Of course, they are all spectacular in their own way, so the winning three will represent all the amazing women of the world. We will be etching the names of the winning three onto elegant limited edition white candles.
In voting, you'll be entering into a raffle to win one of our special white candles, as well as a box of divine chocolates, hand-made in Suffolk! Stay tuned for the next blog for voting details.