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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

Charlie Billy

Charlie Billy Read by Ted Klontz

Back in the ‘70’s as a high school teacher I sponsored a trip for students to the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona. 

“Navajo,” by the way, is their colonialized name.  The Dine (Deenay) is what they call themselves.  This trip had been prompted by a class I was teaching. I was lamenting one day, to my high school students in Michigan about the then current (and still today) tragic economic fate of the Indigenous people of America.

As high schoolers are likely to do, a young woman piped up in class and sarcastically said, “You seem to care so much about them, why don't you do something about it?”  I initially thought how rude of her to talk to me like that, I'm her teacher. I WAS doing something.  I was telling them how things were.  Preaching at my captive congregation, who were essentially powerless to do anything about it. 

Gratefully, over the years I had learned not to say the first thing that comes into my head. And I sat with what she had said.  I had no idea what to do or how to do it or where to do it or how to even begin considering it, but I couldn’t get away from her challenge.  DO SOMETHING!!! Or shut up about it. 

At the time, I was a member of a church. And I must have said something to the pastor about all this and he said, “Well, you know, our denomination has a mission church on the Navajo reservation. Let me do some checking.”  He came back to me later and said, “They're needing help, and would love to have you come.” So, I knew I had to go.  I have a ‘voice’ inside me that is sometimes so loud, I can’t ignore it.  This was one of those times.    

I admit that what I was planning, made no logical sense. I had an 18-month-old young son. I had a wife. As, a teacher I SHOULD be working during the summer, to supplement my teacher’s salary. I would be asking my family to give up a summer to go into the Arizona desert and live for six-weeks.  There would be less money to support my family.  It was going to cost money to go there.  But I couldn’t get away from that voice, and that young woman’s challenge.  I had learned in the most painful way you can imagine that to ignore that ‘voice,’ would not turn out well.   

I told my high school classes that I was going to do something and what it was. The young woman who had challenged me asked if she could go and I said, “Sure.” As the word spread of what I was going to do, another dozen students wanted to go. Then my pastor said that there were another dozen kids from Fort Morgan, Colorado who would like to go. So, we put together this entourage. Myself, my wife, my young son, a dozen kids from Michigan, another dozen from Colorado.

We went and spent several weeks on the reservation, doing something similar to HeadStart for the little ones.  My young students taught the young children English. A language they MUST master for school.  At that time, English was the only permitted language to be spoken in the Bureau of Indian affairs schools. 

They taught us the Dine language. We taught them French.  Everyone laughed and played, and loved, in ways that only the young, innocent, and pure of heart, can.

My Dine contact was a man by the name of Charlie Billy. That was not his real name, it was his Americanized colonialized name. When I asked him how he had gotten his name, he said when the conquerors took their people, they gave them Americanized names.  He told me he had been named after his grandfather.  When his grandfather was a young boy, as he was being registered by the agent in charge of the reservation, he was asked his name.  He responded with his tribal name.  The person doing the registering, laughed, and said, “we can’t have that.”  Meaning “we can’t spell that, pronounce that and don’t want to have to work at knowing who you are.”   So, to the agent’s right was a soldier whose first name was Charlie. To his left, there was a soldier by the name of Billy. So, he said to the young boy, “Your name is now Charlie Billy,” and laughed. 

When we arrived, there was another man in the village whose name was Billy Charlie. I can imagine the scene of those Americans who are registering these young boys, back in the day, and can also imagine the feelings they must have had, being mocked, and made fun of.   

The high school students who came with me fell in love with the young children of the village. The children fell in love with the students. The adults fell in love with each other.  This was a village so poor that there was no running water.  People traveled 70 miles one way to Lake Powell to fill their fifty-gallon drums with water.  There was no electricity.  In the community ‘store,’ rattlesnakes in the meat counter kept the rats from eating the fresh meat. None of that mattered.  

When it came time to go, the students didn’t want to leave.  The village people didn’t want us to leave.  On the last day, there was a village gathering. A celebration where they prepared a feast, the centerpiece being one of their sheep.  There was much weeping and sadness. The young ones hid our shoes so we couldn't go home.

Some of the children asked if they could go with us. When we told them that we lived far, far away and that “No, you can’t see Black Mesa from where we live,” they lost interest in going. I totally understood that.

It was during that day that I was reminded that these people had nothing. No electricity. No water. No modern facilities. They weren’t allowed to speak their language.  Or participate in the ancient rituals.  Say their ancient prayers.  Participate in their ceremonies.  The schools the children went to did not permit them to speak their language.  English only.  We learned from the parents that soon bus loads of the young children we had been working with would be taken away to religious sponsored boarding schools.  Some of them would return in the spring.  Some of them wouldn’t make it through the year.  They would die there. 

Despite all of that, these people had something that my culture didn't have. They had something I didn't have and had never experienced. It was a something that the place I was going back to didn't have either.

During that last day, I made a decision.  Secretly, I began plotting my return to the reservation. This time it wouldn't be for a week, or two weeks, or a month. I was going to get back there and live.  Why?  Because I felt such an unconditional love for the first time in my life from a group of people who my ancestors had attempted to destroy. I wanted that. I wanted to live with that.  In that.

It wasn't an idealized thing. It's what I had experienced every day of my time there. Pure, unadulterated, appreciation and love. We all felt it. Some of us didn't know what to do with it. I'll never forget it.

So, on my last night, I went for a walk by myself in the desert. Plotting and planning how I might be able to pull this off. It wasn’t a question of if; I was going to do it, it was how I am going to do it.

I was going to be one of those people who came back to this place where people, in theory, had nothing; yet they had everything that was important. And I wanted to be there. I wanted to be a part of that.

I was just walking in the desert by myself, excited that I wouldn't have to be alone ever again, because this is the first place I ever felt like (without trying) that I belonged.

About that time, a booming voice came through the clouds as real and loud as a thunderclap.  It said, “NO, NO, NO, YOU DON’T BELONG HERE, GO FIND THIS IN YOUR OWN WORLD!!!”  It's again, that voice I have learned, I am better off heeding.  It was crystal clear that I was being directed by something outside of myself to find something in my culture that I had no idea how to find or even know for sure if it even existed.   

But I knew what it tasted like. I knew what it felt like. I knew what it didn't feel like and what it didn't taste like. Those were my only clues. I was faithful to that search, and because of that faithfulness, I literally, lost everything, over time, that I had.

Some of those things went relatively quickly and some of them, it took a few more decades for me to lose. But I ended up losing everything. And finding everything. Finding in my own culture what I had experienced with the Dine.  What we, as a culture, had not been able to strip them of, despite our best efforts.  And what our culture had stripped me of.

People talk about a 40-day and 40-night journey into the wilderness to find something they don’t have but know they are needing. Mine took 40 years. But I got there.  For the most part, I live in a world that I experienced back on that reservation.   And I have been a small part in sharing it with other people who are looking for “it.”  So, not only did I find ‘it,’ I have helped others find ‘it.’ 

People of my world, my culture, with the same spirit that I experienced back there.  A place where I belong. With people who live in a state of unconditional acceptance and love, of self and others when we have a chance to be together. Unconditional love. Though we are scattered to all corners of the earth, when we gather, it’s there.

 It has become my life’s work. It's become a part of a beautiful life I get to live.  There aren’t many of us, but there are a lot of us.   

Why tell this story, now?  In my last blog, I spoke of having attended a concert at the Station Inn in Nashville.  As I mentioned, that was a profound, spiritual liminal experience for me.  I went home that night and had a dream that felt as if it was a continuation of what I had experienced earlier that evening. 

In my dream, went back to Chilchinbeto.  In the dream, I was, as I am at this time, an old man, not that 27-year-old who had found what he wasn't looking for. At least he didn't know he was looking for it.

In the dream, I'm watched the then children, now adults welcome us.  They recognized me, and I them. 

In my dream, as I was looking around the room, I found myself wondering about what ever happened to my friend, Charlie Billy.  He would be an old man now too.  I dreamed I told someone the story of my friendship with Charlie, and that someone said, “Oh, Charlie, is one of our most respected elders. He is a beloved one. You would call him a saint.”  As they continued to speak of him, I secretly wished that he and I could meet again, this time as old men.

In my dream, I imagined that suddenly an old man appears at the door, and he looks at me. Without speaking, I stand up and move towards him and we embrace. We begin weeping and then we begin sobbing. No words. Just sharing lives lived.  Silently.  Knowingly.  Lives changed by an encounter fifty years ago.  It was, of course, Charlie.

And then, darn it, I woke up from the dream. Weeping with joy, out of both eyes, and sadness  that it was just a dream.

But I knew it wasn't just a dream.  Somehow, I felt that somewhere in Arizona last night, Charlie Billy and I had actually met once again.  As old men.  Each having tried, failed, and succeeded to live and love well.  Helping when and as we could.  Just as my friend had been a help the Cox Family.  

I'll never have any way of proving it to you, but I'm pretty sure that Charlie had a dream last night and I was in it.  And in that dream, embraced, wept, and we began sobbing. It felt that way.  I just knew.  I'm pretty sure he awakened in the morning, weeping in joy and sadness, as I did, grateful that dreams are sometimes beautiful memories of reality.


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