Harry James Willeto
Harry James Willeto was born January 3, 1942 in Pueblo Alto, New Mexico to Mike Werito and Irene Begay Werito. He was of the Mexican Clan, born for the Bitter Water Clan. His maternal grandfather was of the Mountain Cove Clan and his paternal grandfather was of the Mud Clan. His father was a medicine man and his mother was a homemaker. He had 6 siblings: John, Billie, Annabelle, Jean, Bessie, and Phillip.
In his early years, Harry was a sheepherder before he left for the Intermountain School in Brigham City, Utah. He completed what was known as the “four-year special,” which was equivalent to fifth grade. He then moved to Riverside, California to live with his sister, Jean. He attended Sherman Indian School and finished a course of study up until the ninth grade. He was given a choice to continue his education or get a trade. He decided to learn the trade of a cabinet maker and began earning a living this way in Oakland, California. It was during this time in Southern California that he had his first son, Richard. Not long after, he was in a severe car accident and hospitalized for months, which prevented him from being drafted into the military during Vietnam War. When he finally recovered, his sister, Jean, brought him back home to his parents’ residence in Pueblo Alto to finish his recovery.
In 1969, his parents together with Annie and John Jim of White Mesa arranged for Harry’s marriage to Virginia Jim. Harry recalled with wily sense of humor being taken by wagon to White Mesa by his parents: “They just dropped me off!”. Together they had five children: Fannie, Darry, Perry, Fay, and Terry. They resided in the White Mesa area with Annie and John. In the early 1970s, they moved to Cortez, Colorado so both Harry and Virginia could attend Cortez Navajo Bible Institute. They returned to White Mesa after completing their studies and had three more children: Vicky, Harriet, and Veronica. They first started attending a church in Heart Mesa, and eventually became lifelong members of Pine Hill Church.
Harry worked hard to provide for his family. He was a bus driver for the Grace Brethern Navajo Mission School and the Cuba Independent Public Schools. He worked for the Ojo Encino Behavioral Health for a brief time. He also was a seasonal worker for the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI). It was his father and other community leaders who asked him to run for office at the Ojo Encino Chapter House. He agreed and began his public service career in 1975. He was elected by the community to serve as Vice President from 1975 to 1982 and President from 1983 to 1987. He decided to run for the office of Council Delegate of the Ojo Encino Chapter House and the Counselor Chapter House. He was elected to this role by the Ojo Encino and Counselor communities, and served the Navajo Nation Council for two terms from 1992 to 2001. From 2002 to 2009 he was elected to two more terms, but this time it included the Nageezi Chapter House. Harry had a saying each time he ran for office: “If the people want me to continue serving, they will vote for me. It is up to them. I’ll just put my name on the ballot.” As a Council Delegate, he was a member of the public safety committee and ethics and rules committee. After 20 years with the Navajo Nation Council, Harry retired; but this wasn’t the end of his career. He was asked by the Counselor community members to run for President of the Counselor Chapter House. He was elected and served one term from 2012 to 2015.
Upon retirement from his 40 years of public service, he continued to help his people. He and Virginia opened their residence to prayer services every Sunday night. He had a strong faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and a deep desire to see others come to know him as well. He also believed prayer could help his community and diligently kept a community prayer list of those who were going through hardship and needing help. One of his teachings was: “When you see someone struggling, don’t just watch them struggle. Help one another.” In the last years of his life, he was unable to hold prayer services due to the coronavirus pandemic, yet he continued to pray for his family and community every day.
Harry peacefully went home to be with the Lord on April 12th, 2022, at the Sandoval Regional Medical Center in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, surrounded by his loved ones. He was preceded in death by his parents, siblings, sons, Richard and Perry, and grandson, Jayden. He is survived by his wife; his remaining 7 children; his son-in-law, Sampson; his remaining 21 grandchildren, Jaime, Janice, Matthew, Leah, Paige, Alicia, Janessa, Jalissa, Michael, Payton, Sadie, Austin, Virlonda, Andrea, Tiyeisha, Bryan, Olivias, Robert, Zuri, Naat’aanii, and Lyla; and 8 great grandchildren, Gabriella, Jonathan, Christopher, Isaac, Paisley, Milaiah, Emily, and Elijah. A celebration of his life will take place April 20, 2022 at Cedar Hill Church in Ojo Encino, New Mexico. He will be laid to rest at the Counselor Community Cemetary in Counselor, New Mexico.