Monday, January 01, 2007

The Miccosukees and Thoughts of Billie

The wind was gusting to about 30 miles an hour but the silver jewelry, ribboned and Seminole style jackets, leather and fancy crafts waiting for purchase at the annual Miccosukee Festival managed to stay put. At least the temperature was warm, not in the windy 50's the way it was in 2001, the year Shizhee Billie came to Miami for a visit. Well, maybe it was not exactly a visit. Our dear Dineh dad had wrecked his truck in Georgia on his way back home from an earlier visit and he wanted some support on his way to retrieving it.

His unexpected visit was accompanied by a phone call to Brian's house from the Amtrak station in Miami where Billie, 87 years old at that time, wound up after several misguided train changes along the way. Somehow, he went from Albuquerque to Chicago and then to Philadelphia, before arriving in Miami, but he managed to make a few friends, get baskets of fried chicken and enjoy the ride for the way it went.

Billie has been this way all his life, using his keen mind to challenge and solve all the many problems from family, military, white neighbors,Dineh relatives and bosses who tried to take him down. Even in later years, when life should have gotten quieter for this respected elder medicine man,there were feuds with nephews and nieces over grazing rights on reservation land.

Now, here with us, five years ago, Billie not only had the problem of retrieving his truck, and getting his insurance to pay for the accident, but, basically, there was a big question mark regarding his home in Albuquerque. One of his sons, urged him to take out a loan so he could have enough to go back to Chilzhoo, on the reservation,to build the beautiful hogan of so many of his waking dreams. Well, the loan fell through, the money was gone and suddenly, so too was the home that Billie and his wife Mary had built from scratch and ingenuity some 50 years ago when Albuquerque seemed like a good place to raise the family,to pursue their version of the good life.

So, here he was having a great time at the Miccosukee festival, not thinking about any of this, but enjoying the moment as he has always lived his life. You meet the challenge head on, never running from it, but never giving up the small moments that give you pleasure. We danced on stage in our jeans along with the tribal performers in their glorious feathered costumes, and we walked by all the vendors where Pop Billie asked about the price, something he loves to do even when he has no intention of buying anything. The festival has vendors and performers from all around the country and from Canada and Mexico, but Billie always seeks out the Dineh, the Navajo, wherever he can find them.

Billie loves speaking his birth language and one of his real worries is that the younger generation will speak English like so many other tribes and forget their heritage. After all, you can have your ceremonies and keep the crafts going. You can even pass down the Creation Story to the next generation, but so much of the culture is tied into language-the character, the softness, the feel, the inflection. Even the low monotone. There is no other word to describe a bear but "shash" and no word for the sun in the morning but "j'onahei."

Shizhee Billie would have loved watching the dancers yesterday, especially the Bedonie performers from the Monument Valley area, as they did their best to teach some of their tribal customs to a largely white audience. We felt almost privileged, watching a dramatic presentation of the sacred grinding of the corn, to be familiar with the story, the dance and the song. We owe that all to Billie who took us into his heart and became a great spiritual force in our lives.

Following the Corn Grinding song and dance, a young lady came up to speak.She was a recent graduate of the Monument Valley high School, a top student of her class and a proud Dineh warrior. I felt the tears streaming down my face as she addressed the crowd, speaking in slow, classroom learned Dineh. I know that in recent years, the Navajo and some of the other tribes are starting to go backward, to recover many of their mother tongues and old traditions that were barred to them as late as this last century. Even while I was crying a bit, I realized that those tears were for Billie. They would have been tears of joy for him had he been with us yesterday.

The year that he was, it got colder and colder, until we found ourselves late New Years Eve, in ski parkas, seated on chairs deep in the Everglades, with Billie singing his prayers in Dineh under the stars, wearing only a short leather jacket to keep out the cold. The jacket was all he ever needed. A couple of weeks later, he retrieved the truck, now completely repaired, and Brian and I took the ride with him back to his uncertain future in Albuquerque. Pop would find his next home in Window Rock,Arizona, the capital of Navajo Nation. No,it was not Chilzhoo, but he never gave up hope that this would come later

The young Monument Valley graduate followed her short speech with a Dineh song about the Six Sacred Mountains, her sacred mountains, that encompass parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. For the Dineh, they must live within those mountains to have a sacred, peaceful, medicine existence. We pray for you, Shizhee Billie, that you are there today, on this first day of the New Year, and for always.

Billie cut a CD that includes "The Corn Grinding Song" and many other Dineh songs, ten years ago, during his "movie star" days. It is still available in limited editions. You can email for more info.

Photos above are: Dineh Corn Grinding reenactment at the Miccosukee festival, Shizhee Billie and me in Arizona desert.