Ola Smith Grew Up In Payson - Part 1



She was called "grandma Ola" by the Tonto Apache Tribe and also by many of the townsfolk when she died Oct. 13, 1998.

She had told reporters that she did not know how old she was, but they surmised she was "about 77." That is problematical, because when she was interviewed in 1970 by doctoral student Nicholas Houser, he had a census record giving her birth date as November 15, 1932. That would have made her one month short of 65 when she died.


Ola Smith lived life between the old ways of the Tonto Apaches and modern times in Payson.

Perhaps he meant she was born in 1922, but be that as it may, Ola Burdette Smith had what might be called a difficult if not sad life.

She lived on that divide between the old and the new ways among the Apache people.

Born Nov. 13, 1932 on Payson's Indian Hill, Ola Smith never had a chance to gain a good self-image.

"I was having a hard time being born," she said, "and they sent to town for Theresa Boardman. She delivered me with the help of an old doctor, whose name I do not know." Theresa and Bill Boardman owned the land on which her family squatted. She had only flour sacks to wear for clothing during her childhood. Her father, Henry Burdette (Chitten was his Indian name), was old, having been a Scout with the army.

He then worked on building the roads throughout the Rim country. He told her the story of how he had been a scout with Al Sieber, the chief of scouts, when General Crook scoured the countryside for renegade Apaches. Later while working on the road from Roosevelt Dam under the supervision of Al Sieber, he was present when Sieber was killed under a rolling rock.

Her father had also helped build the roads from Roosevelt to Payson and on through Strawberry to Fossil Creek and Camp Verde.

Times were hard, and "when I was only knee-high, learning to walk," she said the family moved from Indian Hill to a traditional campsite on lower Rye Creek near its confluence with Tonto Creek.

There along the bottom-land they could raise squash and corn, but the children were sent out to gather food as the Apaches had always done. They would hunt small game, cactus fruit, wild greens, walnuts, acorns, mesquite beans, and berries.

"We would be in our bare feet," Ola said in an interview with Nicholas Houser in 1970, translated by Chief Melton Campbell from the Apache.

"I don't know how we did it without getting burrs and spines in our feet. Mostly we caught pack rats. We would chase them out of the cactus and throw stones at them. Sometimes we would get 12 or 15, and bring them home to boil and eat. We even took our blind mother out gathering. We would lead her by the hand while she carried the burden basket. We would fill it with prickly pears, knocking the stickers off."

Ola's father would usually take the cactus fruit and make wine out of it.

"The men would all get drunk," she says," and be red around the lips from having drunk that particular wine." However, the most common alcoholic drink was tulapai, a corn mash beer.

Another reason the family had moved to Rye Creek was to be closer to a camp up on the Tonto called "A Place Through Two Rock Bluffs."

There the dances took place, often becoming violent and once leading to the death of several Indians in 1933.

"The adults did not want me to come along to those dances, so I would follow on foot. They would throw rocks at me to make me return home. Sometimes I would not be discovered until I had gotten to the dance. I would sneak in and when they discovered me they would throw rocks and tell me to go home."

"They favored your mother more than they did me," she told Chief Campbell, whose mother Martha was Ola's sister.

Chief Campbell quoted his mother saying Ola was the crybaby of the family and did not carry her share of the burdens. The parents allowed the older Martha to go to the dances. It was indicative of the feeling of inferiority Ola carried all of her life.

Her feelings surfaced again when she spoke of the puberty ceremony. By the time she came along the tribe in Payson no longer practiced the Sunrise, or Coming of Age, Ceremony.

She had heard about it from older relatives, but her people did not have a medicine man who could perpetuate it. This most significant event in the life of an Apache maiden meant she was ready for marriage.

Ola recalled how when her father married her mother he had to bring his best horse and saddle, a deer and wild foods he had gathered and present them to the bride's mother. This was to prove that he was man enough to support and care for the bride as well as her parents. "People don't get married like that any more. Things have changed," she lamented.

The economic factors of marriage had not changed, however. The family moved back to Indian Hill in 1945 when Ola was 13-years-old. Immediately her family forced her to marry an older man named Ed Smith. That same year Ola's father died and Ed could help support all of them. She was still 13-years-old when her first child, Polly (Davis), was born. She expressed sorrow that she felt no love for her husband, and in fact was frightened of him.

She would run away from him at night, taking her blanket and sleep in caves or among the trees.

In the morning she would return to her mother's home and cook for the family pretending she did not have to return to her own home.

Usually Dan Bread, a neighbor, would come and take her back, making her return to her husband.

(To be continued next week.)

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