“Leta Keith: Weaving a Life of Commitment,” Ensign, Jan. 1987, 66–68
Her hair, streaked with gray, is fixed in the traditional tsiiyeil, or Navaho bun, and she moves with a graceful, rhythmic gait. Long years of weaving rugs by the light of a kerosene lantern has weakened her eyes so she must now wear glasses to improve her vision.
Leta Keith stands only 5′4″ tall and weighs about 120 pounds, but according to her daughter Katie Tree, she “is a fighter; she has a lot of faith in what she wants to do. Mom says if you believe you can do it, then you can.”
Who is this desert rose? To the many young children who surround her, she is shima sani, or grandmother. Other people know her as a warm, friendly, and honest person who radiates love, peace, security, and dignity. She glows with an aura of serenity, and wherever she goes “she makes you feel proud to be a Navaho by her examples of honesty and humility,” says daughter Anita, a recently returned missionary.
Sister Keith, a full-blooded Navaho, was born in a humble hogan, or dirt house, 5 February 1923, at Rock Point, Arizona. Her parents were Hataali Yazhi (Little Singer) and Glihaazbah Yazzie. Her maternal clan is the Tabaha (Edgewater), while the Tachii’nii (Red Streak) is her paternal clan.
For thirty-four years Sister Keith has lived in Chilchinbito, a small Navaho reservation community named after a reddish-type berry that used to grow nearby. Her tribal-built, two-room house, which is tucked neatly beneath the edge of massive sandstone cliffs, offers a spectacular view of the vast open spaces of the peaceful Chilchinbito valley. Her home is heated by a single wood-burning stove. She cooks on a butane stove in cold months and on a makeshift stove just outside the chaash’oh, or shade house, in the summer. Sister Keith and her husband, Hurley, have raised their seven children in this uncomplicated environment. Three of her children have answered calls to serve missions for the Church.
Soon after her first marriage, Sister Keith was admitted to the tuberculosis sanitorium in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While she was there, far away from home and family, her husband left her. After treatment, she returned to her home at Rock Point, Arizona. Soon after that, in the early spring of 1952, she met Hurley Charles Keith.
The marriage between Leta and Hurley was arranged by Brother Keith’s brothers and sisters because they were concerned about his constant movement away from the reservation and his home after his first wife died. They were married by a Navaho medicine man in a traditional Navaho wedding ceremony at Chilchinbito.
“I’d go visit her while she and her cousin herded their families’ sheep,” says Brother Keith.
“Yes, and he would hide my shoes,” retorts Sister Keith.
“But that was because you and your cousin always tried to take my horse,” Brother Keith replies.
“I do remember he was always a rascal,” smiles Sister Keith, thinking back over the years.
Some of the qualities that impressed Brother Keith when he met his future wife were her talents in weaving as well as her ability to cook and keep house. “And of course, she was also very appealing to me,” he chuckles with a boyish grin.
Sister Keith’s mother taught her to weave when she was seven years old. For the next thirty years, her patterns followed the simple rug designs that were common throughout the reservation. In later years, however, her patterns have become more creative and unique, especially her double-weave design. She also weaves baskets and sash belts.
Sister Keith’s weaving talents won worldwide acclaim when she and a group of selected weavers from the Chilchinbito area produced the world’s largest hand-woven Navaho Indian rug. She was one of the key people responsible for the supervision, pattern selection, and construction of this outstanding display of Navaho artwork.
In June 1971, Brother and Sister Keith were sealed to each other and their children in the Arizona Temple. This long-awaited event was made possible through the patience and love of Church members who took the time to teach and prepare the Keiths to receive their endowments.
The chief motivation for Sister Keith’s desire to seek the Church was her children. Because they were enrolled in the LDS Indian Placement Program, “My children went to schools off the reservation for a few years, leaving only my husband and me at home. Although I missed them, as any mother would, I knew that the things they were learning in the schools and in their foster homes were good and proper for them,” explains Sister Keith. “We decided that we, too, should learn about the Church, and as the full-time missionaries taught us we began to attend church here in Chilchinbito. When the kids came home they taught us the things they had learned from their foster families, and they would bear their testimonies to us.”
Although Brother Keith had been a practicing medicine man for about thirty years, once he and Sister Keith joined the Church he gave up that way of life. After a few years, he accepted the call to serve as the first Navaho branch president in Chilchinbito. Sister Keith followed suit by accepting a call as Relief Society president in that branch. For twelve years they served side by side, sometimes as the only active leaders of the branch, until Brother Keith’s ill health required that he be released.
The Chilchinbito Branch used to meet in a converted mobile trailer-house that, with the approval of the Keiths, was situated on their property. At the time it was very difficult to secure land to build a church. Today, the Chilchinbito Saints travel about fifteen miles to Kayenta, Arizona, to attend one of the two wards now there. The Keiths are always present with their children and grandchildren unless they are ill or there is no means of transportation available.
Sister Keith encourages members of the Church to cherish their testimonies of the Savior and follow the counsel of his prophets. One of the greatest experiences of her life was meeting President Spencer W. Kimball in Salt Lake City. “It brought tears to my eyes,” she says. “I even shook his hand.”
When asked how she came to acquire her spiritual sensitivity, Sister Keith replies, “When I was baptized I knew I was forgiven of my sins, and with the gift of the Holy Ghost I am guided to do what is right. Even though I can’t read the standard works of the Church, I am able to get answers to my questions through prayer. I know and understand the Lord’s plan—how he created the earth, gave us our bodies, and blessed us with a special mate with whom we can bring more spirits into our homes. These special spirits bless my life and make me strong. When I was growing up as a young girl, I never even knew of Jesus Christ. But with the knowledge that I have of him now, I know that there is life after death, and this has helped me love my family more. This great plan of God gives me strength.”
A few years ago, Elder George P. Lee, who was then the president of the Southwest Indian Mission, visited the Saints in the Chilchinbito area. While there, he listened to some of Sister Keith’s concerns. “I told him of other people in this community who had lots of material possessions, the comfortable things of life, including an abundance of livestock such as sheep and horses. But all I had were my rugs and my ability to weave,” says Sister Keith. “He replied that it was probably true, and then he began to remind me that these people would have their material goods only for the duration of their lives on earth, but I had the priesthood in my home and a knowledge of Jesus Christ. He told me that if I remained worthy, I could inherit the highest kingdom of God, which is the most valuable gift I could receive. I know his words are true.”
Although she has never accumulated material wealth, Sister Keith enjoys the security and comfort of a loving family who has learned from her exemplary life. Her weaving has provided not only economic stability for the family, but unique opportunities to teach her children values that have forged permanent images of a caring and faithful mother.
“She has a great love for us, and people in general, and has struggled just to provide for her children,” says Anita. “I am grateful she is our mother.”