Billy Yellow is the man in the red headband in the "show you how we do it" healing ceremony photographed by Earl Waggoner in the 1950s. I'd spent a couple of months in Monument Valley researching Earl's photographs when someone told me that one of the men in the photos was Billy Yellow. Billy was a well known Navajo who had been a guide for John Wayne and John Ford when they filmed The Searchers and Stagecoach and other westerns in the 1940s and 50s. He had small parts as an extra and stunt horseback rider. He was known throughout the Navajo Nation as a spiritual leader, what the Navajo call a singer. I was fortunate to meet him before he died at 102 in 2003. When I finally found him in Shiprock NM Billy and I spent a few hours together with his eldest son, Jeremiah Harvey who translated for us. I laid the photographs of the ceremony out on a table and Billy described what was going on in the photos (see the Bikeyah page). Later that evening I told Billy that that day happened to be my birthday and asked if he would sing a spirit song for me...he agreed and sang The Morning Spirit Song below.
Translation by Billy Yellow's Son
Morning Spirit Song
The Morning Spirit song sings of the abundance
and wealth of the morning,
when the warmth and light of day come with all
its glory, when all is possible and potential.
You feel the water of life running
over your feet and the soft
wet earth beneath your feet.
You begin to walk
through the white corn fields as the pollen blesses you
with the sacred seed of Life.
You feel the good above you, below you,
in front of you, behind you
all around you
(Then the drumming shifts)
Now you are walking into the
into the darkness, into the night
bringing with you virtue and spiritual abundance gathered
during the sacred day.
The stars begin to come out.
This is the good way, the blessing way."
sung by Billy Yellow 2002
translated by Jeremiah Harvey
Over the next year I didn't see much of Billy. I was in Flagstaff and Monument Valley. He was living in Shiprock and, believe it or not, on the move in his pick up truck at age 101! We kept missing each other until one day I asked one of his grandchildren to ask Billy if he would meet with me in Monument Valley. I wanted to photograph Billy and he agreed. I brought my friend Dennis Thomann with me to take the photos. Dennis is the best photographer I know and the three of us met for breakfast.
Billy didn't speak English and we didn't speak Dine' so there was a lot of head bobbing and smiling as we sat around the table waiting to order. When the waitress arrived she said something to Billy in Dine' and he looked a little sheepish and smiled. We asked her what she'd said and she told us that she told him she'd seen his pickup truck parked in front of her grandmother's house last night! We all laughed! Here was Billy, 101 years old driving his pickup truck and visiting his girlfriend!
After breakfast we went back to Billy's family house in Kayenta. We decided where to take the photos and he went to his truck where he dressed in his red velvet shirt, black hat, turquoise jawclaws, silver bow guard, turquoise earring and sand cast silver belt buckle. He came back from the truck and Dennis took the photo above. When we went back into the house Billy sat on the couch and called all his great grandchildren and grandnieces and grandnephews to sit with him. Then he took all the money I'd given him in cash for letting us take his photograph and he gave it all away laughing and sharing his love with his family. He was a beautiful man.
That was the last time I saw Billy alive. It was later that fall that I heard from one of his granddaughters that Billy had been in an accident. He'd been hospitalized and was recovering well when he died of pneumonia. I attended his funeral conducted at the small church in Monument Valley. There he laid in an open coffin dressed in all his regalia, the same shirt and jewelry he's wearing in the photograph of him in the black hat. After the service we all drove a few miles out to his winter camp at Eagle Mesa where another service was held as he was laid to rest in his family plot. It was here that one of his spirit brothers, another singer who had learned the sacred ways of the Dine from Billy, spoke of him in Dine'. It was one of the most powerful eulogies I'd ever heard. Though I didn't understand a word, I got the message and felt blessed to have been there. As I walked away from the burial ground toward my truck a few hundred yards away I looked up and there, not 500 feet above me, was a golden eagle circling on wings at least six feet across. It was so big and close I could see its talons. I wanted to call out for all to see but something told me to be still. So I stood there in the filed for the longest time pointing my finger to the sky til my arm was sore, watching the eagle circle. Finally, it caught a thermal and soared up and out to the northeast toward Mexican Hat. I knew I'd seen the transmigration of a Navajo singer. I was amazed.
Later at the feast I sought out the man who'd given Billy's eulogy and told him about the eagle I'd seen. He said that he too had seen it but that no one else had mentioned it to him. He said it must have been a gift for the two of us. If it was, it was one of many gifts Billy gave me. Just to have known him and have seen him smile and heard his voice was a gift. He was an amazing man. He laughed easy and spoke the language of the heart. He walked in beauty and carried the spirit of Hozho in his heart for all to see. Ah Ho!
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