Tom Henio in ceremonial garb in Denver

Navajo Traditions: Grandpa Tom Henio

December 27, 1900 – May 21, 1992

By Monty Billings, Jr.

Ya’ at’eeh shi’kis do shichee’ Tom.

Tom Henio’s first contact with the Prairie Trek Expeditions occurred at his wedding to Ada on August 14, 1930. A local trader, by the name of Burton Staples, had invited all of the young boys of the Prairie Trek Expeditions and their leader, Hillis Howie, and his wife, Elizabeth, to join Ada and Tom for their wedding ceremony. The members of the Expedition assisted with the food for the great feast after the ceremony. The Prairie Trek, at the time, was a loose-knit organization, without a home base. But in 1932 Staples showed Mr. Howie the old Carrington Ranch near Bluewater Lake. The Howie’s bought the property as a base camp and from thereafter our long friendship developed with Tom and Ada Henio, and of their children and grandchildren.

HLH & Tom Henio-1

Joe Silversmith, Hillis Howie, & Grandpa Tom Henio building Caretaker’s house, 1959.

The new Base Camp, with only a few ramshackle buildings near a spring, was not in good shape. Tom Henio helped fix that problem. He had his hand in the construction of every one of the nearly 25 buildings at the Cottonwood Gulch. For the most part, these buildings were built without architectural drawings or blueprints. Kurt Vonnegut’s father had rendered some rough sketches for the cabins, for example, and it was Tom Henio’s keen eye and solid craftsmanship that rendered those sketches into the long-lasting structures we see today. Nearly every one of the buildings has Tom’s personal and witty touch — a rock in the fireplace chimney which looks like a buffalo head, or Mr. Howie’s boot in the stonework of the Caretaker’s adobe house.


Henios and Howies outside of the hogan at Base Camp, Thoreau, NM

My first personal recollection of Tom Henio must have been in 1960, when I served on the staff at the Cottonwood Gulch. Tom’s grandson, and namesake, Tommy, son of Madeline, was a member of my Little Outfit groups in 1960 and 1961. Tom’s daughters, Marie and Irene, were members of the Turquoise Trail those years. Nearly all of Tom and Ada’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have joined us for a summertime of adventure. I recall Tom was building structures around the Gulch every summer in the 1960’s. His hands were always busy with various projects. Occasionally he was invited to lend his hand and watchful eye to the campers in the Craft Shop, which he helped build. Renamed the Native American Workshop, the NAW was the site of intricate Grandpa Tom-guided silversmith projects and, with his daughters, many other Navajo art projects.


Grandpa Tom Henio outside his ranch

My own friendship with the Henio family developed over the years, especially with Tom. Our friendship is something I am most proud of and thankful for. He introduced us to the traditional ways of the Navajo, something I value most highly. Our mutual respect and friendship for each other has opened the door to allow me, my family, and the campers under my charge to be intimately involved in Henio family life. I can recall many an evening when Tom would point out the stars and planets to our campers, with one of his daughters interpreting his stories.

CWG '42

Turquoise Trail Expedition 1942

I especially recall when Tom asked me to participate as an “elder” in the weddings of several grandchildren. That was a great honor. We’ve been very lucky to have, and are appreciative of, Tom and Ada’s invitation for our campers to participate in several events and ceremonies, from the Navajo picnic, to the sheep dips, sweat lodges, and kinalda’s (girls’ rite of passage to womanhood). I mention these things as mere examples. There are many more ways that I could recount, of the ways Tom entered our program and educated boys and girls of different cultures about the ways of the Navajo people. I believe Tom knew exactly what he was doing. He enjoyed seeing the bright eyes and expressions of a young boy from New York City — eyes become less in awe of seeing a “real Indian” and more in awe of learning that Navajos have similar values and beliefs. Though we are different in lifestyles and traditions, our underlying concepts of family, trust, honor, and self are exactly the same.


Tom Henio and Monty Billings inspect a silver sandcast belt buckle

We shall miss Tom Henio’s physical presence around Cottonwood Gulch — his keen eye, and deft hand. His gentle guidance and witty remarks. We shall miss him greatly! We are glad that he has instilled his values and beliefs in his children, his grandchildren and even his great-grandchildren. We shall continue to value his presence in them. Ya’ at’ eeh shichee’.


Hillis Howie, Elizabeth Howie, Ada Henio and Tom Henio circa 1980


NOTE: Grampa Tom Henio’s funeral was presided over by Joe Silversmith at the Rehoboth Mission Church in New Mexico. My words understate Tom Henio’s importance to the Cottonwood Gulch. We feel his presence today.