Four days after Christmas in l922, a Navajo father took his tiny, premature new-born son from his hogan into the bitter cold. He placed his son on a blanket on the frozen ground and began chanting a blessing.
He anointed the baby’s feet, knees, waist, shoulders, chin, mouth, forehead and head with corn pollen. In this early morning ceremony somewhere in the great silent wilderness near Navajo Mountain, Harold Drake was dedicated to become an athlete, a leader and a man born to travel.
Few Navajo babies receive such a blessing. Only sons of medicine men bless their sons, and Harold Drake was the son of a medicine man.
Little Harold sprang from the Salt (Ashiihi) Clan. His mother was Mabel Begay; his father was Richard Navajo of the Many Goats (Tlizi Lani) Clan from Piute Farms.
At age seven, Harold was taken to a Nida (traditional Navajo dance ceremony) by his Aunt Cleo. While there, two men approached Cleo and told her that if she did not send Harold and her own children to boarding school, she would be put in jail.
Later in life, Harold recalled, “The Bureau of Indian Affairs hired policemen to round up school-age kids to go to boarding school. I vividly remember being taken to Tuba City in a 1930 Model-T Ford by a policeman named Jim Maloney.
“At school they cut off my bun, (hair) and threw it in a waste basket. I never got my turquoise earrings back. It was a lonely year. There was no such thing as Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation. We stayed there the whole nine months because there was no money for us to go home.
“School was like the military. When we did something they didn’t like, they whipped us or sent us out with picks and shovels to dig trenches and cut weeds. When we ran away, the boys were forced to wear girl’s dresses, and the girls were made to wear boy’s jeans.
“We were not allowed to speak our native tongue. If we were caught doing so we were forced to chew soap.”
Harold graduated from Tuba City High School in l945. He went to Cook’s Christian Training School in Phoenix where he studied to become a Christian Leader.
While there he joined the basketball team. It was an all-Indian team. The team traveled and played all over the Southwest, raising money for the March of Dimes.
Harold was extremely fast and an excellent dribbler. In a tournament in Window Rock they were playing in overtime for the championship. With only a few seconds remaining, Harold received an out-of bounds pass at one end of the court and just threw it toward the other end of the court, falling flat in the process. Everyone stood in silence.
Harold said he knew it would go in. He heard the other coach swear, followed by a mighty roar.
The next day Harold received a call from the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was told that very few pro players had ever made such a shot. Whenever Harold talked about that event later in life, his eyes would glisten and he seemed almost 18 again as the memory of being lifted to the shoulders of his teammates flooded back. It was an event he carried with him to his dying day.
After graduation from Cook’s in Phoenix, Harold attended Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa for three years.
For the next eight years he held weekly camp meetings at Navajo Mountain, Tuba City, Shoto, Kayenta, Inscription House, and Kaibito. He also taped a weekly radio program, titled “The Church in Your Hogan”, for broadcast from Flagstaff.
His political career began in 1959 when he was elected to the Navajo Tribal Council. He served in the Paul Jones, Raymond Nakai and Peter McDonald Administrations. He was the chairman of the Advisory Committee, the second most powerful position in the Navajo Tribal Government for eight years.
He was appointed chairman of the Budget and Finance, Labor and Manpower Committee; Transportation and Road Committee; Hopi-Navajo Land Dispute Negotiation Committee; and Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Board.
While serving on the Navajo Tribal Council he made 26 trips to Washington, D.C. to lobby and testify before Congress for the Navajo Nation. He visited dozens of other cities across the U.S. searching and promoting job training opportunities for Navajo young people.
After Harold retired from service on the Tribal Council, he returned to the new Navajo Mountain Boarding School and taught children how to play basketball.
In a cold gymnasium, dressed in khaki slacks, a faded shirt, a parka, tennis shoes and a baseball cap, Drake would give his students an impromptu lesson: “Remember, everything comes from within. Hate, torture, and criticism make us poverty stricken in the heart. We know these elements are working when we hear evil spoken.
“We must control our tongues. It is the most dangerous part of the body.”
Drake would stop in front of his young friends and force them to look him in the eye. Some would giggle. Drake would laugh with them and then slap his thigh and say, “This is what I have to say. This is how I have lived.”
Harold Drake gave many years of service to his Navajo Mountain community. People came from across the reservation for his counsel and advice.
His wife, Stella, gave an account of one such conversation he had with a young man and his father when the son was having serious problems:
“What is the problem?” Harold asked.
“My son left school with his friends and didn’t return for a week,” the father said.
“I can do what I want,” the boy replied. “Who are you to correct me? Look what you have done with your life.”
Drake gestured for the young man to be silent. “Parents are the prayer house, the temple of the living being. Beauty comes out of their souls and prays for you. Now you say you hate them. Remember, it was your parents who fed you in the night. Every time your parents give you advice, they are giving you their life. If you don’t see it, if you can’t accept it, then a part of their life is being thrown away. Go home. Listen to your parents. Get an education. Become somebody.”
Harold Drake organized the first Navajo Mountain Pioneer Days in August of l964. It is a day of family reunions and celebrations in remembrance of Chief Hoskininni who led 17 of his relatives into the deep canyons south of Navajo Mountain to avoid being rounded up by Kit Carson’s soldiers for the Long Walk. Some of the residents of Navajo Mountain today are descendents of Chief Hoskininni.
Harold Drake brought many firsts to his community: electricity, a clinic, a new school and a day to honor the pioneers of the Navajo Tribe who settled Navajo Mountain.
In 1988, at age 63, Harold Drake won the hundred-meter dash at the annual Pioneer Days celebration, just as he had most years since l964. He ran barefoot. He was five feet, five inches tall. At an age when many men have difficulty walking, Harold could still beat all takers in the annual race.
The blessing of that tiny baby in the freezing December night in l922 had come to fruition. He was a remarkable athlete almost to his dying day. He was a respected leader, and he was a “traveler” extraordinaire.
Harold Drake died of cancer Monday, January 14, l991 surrounded by his family in the Tuba City Hospital.
Although he has been gone 18 years, his legacy is still alive in the shifting sands and the stories told on the vast Navajo Reservation. His spirit dances with the shadows on the sandstone canyon walls when the drums and chants of his posterity gather to celebrate their noble heritage.