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An American MYSTERY! Special
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The Navajo: Yesterday and TodayHillerman on the SouthwestAbout HillermanResources
Tradition Today: Time Among the Navajo

  "I've used yucca on my hair all of my life, and I like the way it works."
photograph of man harvesting a yucca plant
Bruce Spencer digs up a yucca.
Yucca Shampoo
Text by Kathy Eckles Hooker
Photographs by Helen Lau Running

Mary Spencer plans to wash her granddaughter Lisa's hair in the Navajo way, using yucca from her land. Mary, her son Bruce, his wife Alice, and Lisa drive into the hills close to Mary's camp to find a fresh yucca. "Old yucca is just no good," Bruce says. "It sure gets rotten. New ones are the best and make good soap, and I'm sure there is one around here." We find a young yucca within moments.

Shovel in hand, Bruce carefully digs up the soft soil around the plant. With one tug, he pulls out the yucca, exposing its muddy root. Holding the plant in place on the ground, he chips the root off with his shovel blade. As Alice and Lisa return the plant to the soil, Bruce shovels dirt around it, explaining, "We always give the yucca back to the land."

Mary cleans the mud from the root by rubbing it briskly on some nearby damp grass. Over and over, she wipes the root until it is only a small stick with bark. Based on the size of the root, the women decide they have enough for one washing. We return to camp, leaving land that looks as if it has never been touched.

Bruce begins the soap-making process by cracking the root with a hammer to break the bark-covering shell. As he removes the shell, a white root emerges that is fibrous, slick, and soapy. While a large pan of water warms, Mary emphasizes that "the pan and your hands have to be clean, not greasy, or the yucca won't work; it won't make soap." The results, it is clear, will be worth the effort. "I've used yucca on my hair all of my life, and I like the way it works."

In a large metal bowl, Mary splashes water over the clean root, producing a thick, white lather. Mary rubs the root as if it is a bar of soap, and gentle bubbles begin to form. As the bubbles change into thick suds, Mary continues the rubbing. After a few minutes, the bowl overflows with lather.

photograph of grandmother wshing Lisa's hair
Lisa says she loves the soft rubbing of her grandmother's hands on her head.
Lisa unties her long, black ponytail, bends over, and lowers her hair into the lather. Her grandmother scoops up the sudsy water and washes it into Lisa's hair. Mary massages her granddaughter's scalp, working the yucca suds gently through the black strands. Lisa says she loves the soft rubbing of her grandmother's hands on her head, as well as hearing the swishing of water and the quiet popping of the white bubbles around her ears. After a few minutes, Mary tells Lisa that her hair is clean. It is time to rinse.

Alice hands another pot of warm water to Mary, who slowly pours it over Lisa's soapy head. The rinsing takes several minutes, but soon the girl's wet hair shines. Alice squeezes her daughter's hair with a towel, and when she removes the wrapping, Lisa throws her head back so that her long hair first flies up into the air and then flops down on her back. The few yucca fiber sticking to the strands of hair drop to the floor as Lisa shakes her head from side to side, bouncing her hair in a hair-drying dance. She moves close to the fire to allow its warmth to reach her hair.

"That soap from the store gives you dandruff. This yucca doesn't," Mary explains. "It makes hair nice. Some people can get a rash from it, but most Navajos don't. Yucca makes hair shiny, and it makes hair grow longer."

To finish the hairdressing tasks, Mary Spencer brings out a brush called a be'ezo, carefully removing it for the bag in which it is stored. The be'ezo is a bundle of stiff, dried perennial grass (called sandhill muhly) that grows near sandy areas. "We pick the grass in August and September after it has been dried by the hot summer sun," explains Alice. Mary takes the be'ezo and lightly hits the ends against the palm of her hand. Over and over, she taps the grass ends to make them even.

Lisa kneels close to her grandmother as Mary combs the now-dry hair first with her fingers. Cradling the hair in her hand, she begins brushing; the be'ezo makes scratching sounds against Lisa's head. Soon her long hair becomes straight and glossy.

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