by S.J. Wilson
Big Mountain, Hopi Partition Lands, Ariz. (NFIC)
Katherine Smith, well-known for her role in the resistance of forced relocation as a result of PL 93-531 (the Navajo Hopi Relocation Act), has always been an independent woman. Smith is living out her dream of spending the rest of her days at her home on the Hopi Partition Lands near the Hard Rocks Chapter.
Having spent her 85-plus years on the ancestral lands she has always known, Smith was frustrated by old age and her dependency on her daughters, Marykatherine Smith and Marie Gladue, who share a home site lease above their mother’s sheep camp.
Though the Navajo Nation had provided the elder Smith with a wheelchair, this was just one more symbol of dependency as far as both Katherine and Marykatherine – who is Katherine’s primary caretaker – were concerned.
As the Smith sheep camp has never had indoor plumbing and running water, forcing Katherine to walk to an outhouse several times a day, the elder often faced inclement weather. The steady effects of degenerative arthritis made trips outside increasingly difficult. Her daughters worried about her, especially in the winter.
“I knew other elderly people, off the reservation, were receiving handicapped scooters, and I wondered why Katherine couldn’t have one, too,” said Marykatherine Smith in an interview on December 28. “So one day I called up her case manager and asked if Katherine could get a scooter.
“I was told that perhaps Katherine could receive an electric wheelchair,” Marykatherine contined. “I told her caseworker that my mother already had a wheelchair. I needed her to be independent, which is one of the purposes of long term care.”
When the case worker told Marykath-erine that she had never had a request for a scooter before, the ever-resourceful daughter challenged, “There’s always a first time.”
The process required several phone calls a day for a week. The paperwork required a prescription, and included a good deal of technical medical terminology and help from people involved in Katherine’s case.
The extra work was well worth it, leading to Katherine’s receipt of a bright red, self-propelled electric Merrit scooter.
“It’s really neat,” Marykatherine said admiringly. “It has headlights, turn signals, a back-up alert signal, and has six speeds. The tires are solid, not filled with air, and will not go flat. It has a serial number and is registered to Katherine.”
Marykatherine received the scooter from a Phoenix vendor in the parking lot of the hospital in Tuba City, as wintery weather conditions had made many roads impassable. The next day she introduced Katherine to her new “electric pony.”
“When she first saw it, I parked it outside and began reciting the ‘do’s and don’ts’ for using the scooter,” Marykatherine said. “I told her that to use the scooter, she had to agree to wear a scarf, gloves, a warm sweater, a turtleneck undershirt – all of the clothing necessary to keep her warm. I also told her that there would be no off-roading. Then I went around back to feed the animals, to give Katherine time to dress for lessons in driving the scooter. When I came back around front, she had already figured out how to drive the scooter and she was gone.”
“The first day she had it, she got stuck in the mud. We had to track her down,” laughed family friend Jim Milton.
Katherine has already discovered five of the six speeds, but Marykatherine says there is little danger of her mother breaking any speed limits – she estimates the scooter’s top speed at 20 miles per hour.
Now Katherine travels the land around her home site. Over the last several years, Katherine has stayed with her daughter, but now she can drive down to her own house to spend the day.
This allows the elder to take care of her own affairs without asking her daughter to drive her down to her own home site. Both women are happier, and Marykatherine said that her mother – who also recently underwent cataract surgery, regaining her vision – is exhibiting a renewed zeal for life.
“Oh, man, she’s like a teenager getting a driver’s license for the first time. She can get around now, and has redeveloped her sense of independence,” Marykatherine added. When viewing her photograph to be included in her story, Katherine laughed with delight.
The family offers their thanks to the people who helped restore Katherine’s independence. They are Christy Deal, a Durable Medical Equipment Coordinator for the Navajo Nation; Katherine’s physician, Dr. Truesdell; and Katherine’s Case Manager for Long Term Care, Vernel Ayzie.
“I guess we should have requested a generator to charge it up with,” she laughed. “We still don’t have electricity.” But the lightweight scooter is easily transported to power sources.
It is believed that Katherine is the first person on the Navajo Reservation to receive such a scooter. Marykatherine Smith hopes that her mother is not the last.