In truth, medical records show, the doctors were stumped. Something was affecting the girls' peripheral nervous systems, but what? Linnie and Laura were the youngest of nine children. None of their siblings or other relatives had experienced anything like this.
Around the time of the daughters' visits to the IHS clinic in the mid-1970s, the family's prospects were looking up. David had built a cinderblock house to replace the shack.
Laura started thinking about her future. Perhaps she would manage a hotel or become a stewardess. "I could be well-dressed and serve people," she remembers thinking.
In 1976, researchers from the University of New Mexico published an article in the journal Archives of Neurology. They had discovered a disabling illness that appeared to be hereditary. Corneal ulcers, muscular weakness and liver disease were among the symptoms.
All four cases cited in the paper were Navajo children. Two were siblings. "This does not constitute proof that the disease is genetically determined, but it seems likely," wrote the authors.
In the years to come, researchers would pronounce in more and more certain terms that the illness was purely hereditary. They called it "Navajo neuropathy." There was no cure.
Another family's loss
While the Neztsosie girls were baffling their doctors, the Nez family braced for another death.
Leonard and Helen Nez lived most of the year at their sheep camp at the base of Tah-chee, a hill in the middle of the reservation.
They too had dealt with a spate of disfigured livestock — a calf with a crooked leg, another diagnosed with cancer of the eye, a lamb born with three legs, "kind of like an omen," one of the Nez daughters recalls.
Soon enough, the Nezes started losing children. First, in 1963, a stillbirth. Then, in 1969, daughter Dorinta and son Jerome died four months apart. In 1972, Claudia died. These three siblings had suffered from blurred vision, failing livers and limp muscles. None lived past a fourth birthday.
Three more Nez children were displaying similar symptoms. At the Indian Health Service clinic in Chinle, perplexed staff members asked Helen whether she engaged in incest, consumed alcohol while pregnant or suffered from mental problems.
No, she said, offended. None of these apply.
The doctors urged her to stop having babies, she said.
In the spring of 1978, the family's youngest, 2-year-old Euphemia, was in serious decline. By then, there was a name for the ailment. The IHS arranged for the child to undergo liver surgery in an Albuquerque hospital.
The treatment team included Russell D. Snyder, a pediatric neurologist at the University of New Mexico. Snyder was one of the authors of the article suggesting a hereditary cause for Navajo neuropathy.
But Helen, now 68, said Snyder expressed concern when she told him she lived near a uranium mine — an abandoned pit atop Tah-chee. Helen said he warned her that uranium was dangerous.
Snyder declined to be interviewed. In notes on the Nez family that he wrote in 1990, after treating the siblings for years, he included this observation: "A uranium mine was within one mile of the home where all these children lived, and uranium tailings were closer."