Monday, December 21, 2009

Ambrose Willie 1944 - 2009:
Ambrose and Lucy Willie, Burnham, N.M. Navajo Nation
I first met Ambrose Willie in 2005 while working on the Question of Power project on the Navajo Nation. Lucy Willie, Ambrose's wife, was the first person I met, spoke with, and interviewed on my initial trip to the reservation. Since that first day Lucy and I had been working together traveling across the Navajo Nation collecting stories, making photographs, and listening to the voices of the Elders regarding the problems created by the coal burning power plants.

The day I met Ambrose, we had coffee, and then sat in silence together for about an hour with no words being shared between us. Ambrose turned, faced me directly, looked deeply into my eyes and only then began to tell me his story. I listened intently for several hours as he shared part of his life's journey with me. He was husband, father, grandfather, medicine man, Vietnam Vet, Purple Heart, a soft spoken wise man. He and Lucy had lived together in their home for over thirty-eight years. While serving in Vietnam he had been exposed to Agent Orange. In and out of the VA hospitals many times for health and lung problems caused by Agent Orange, he knew western medicine alone was not providing healing solutions. He worked with the VA to establish a Native healing service for Vets using traditional ceremonies and sweat lodge.
San Juan coal power plant, Four Corners area, NM. December 2009.
The Willie family lives in the shadow of two coal burning power plants on the Navajo Nation. The emissions from the power plants have caused breathing, asthma, and related lung problems with many families in the area. Ambrose's lungs, damaged in Vietnam by Agent Orange, were constantly irritated by the polluted air from the power plants. Lucy told me many times the great pain Ambrose experienced. In October after another series of breathing attacks, Ambrose was taken to the hospital in Shiprock. The doctors there were unable to help him and he continued to, as Lucy told me, "go down fast". Lucy realized Ambrose needed additional medical treatment available at a VA hospital. No beds were available in VA hospitals in New Mexico and Arizona. A private hospital in Colorado was located where Ambrose could receive the treatment and care he needed. He was immediately transported to Colorado with Lucy following in her truck. After two nights sleeping on the floor next to Ambrose's bed, Lucy spent the next two weeks sleeping in the cab of her pickup in the hospital parking lot.
Shiprock, NM
On the morning of October 27, 2009 at 5 A.M, his family by his side, Lucy holding his hand, Ambrose finished his journey on Mother Earth at the age of sixty-four.
Veterans Cemetery, Shiprock, NM. Navajo Nation
The final request from Ambrose was to be buried near their home in Burnham with other family members in a special ceremonial site. As Lucy made arrangements for the traditional services she was advised not to have the burial at the home site. If she buried Ambrose at the home site within two years he would be moved when the coal mine came through and took her home and burial sites. In a moment of distress and worn from the constant struggle to save her home and family from the mine extension, Lucy made the heart breaking decision to bury Ambrose in the Shiprock Cemetery.
Ambrose Willie: 1944 - 2009
Nancy and I gathered with family and friends as Ambrose was buried with honors by Navajo Veterans and Singers. I will miss his kind and gentle words, strong thoughts, and his concerns for the land and family he loved.

Ambrose stood strong to protect his homeland on foreign soil only to return home and discover the need to continue the stand to protect his homeland on native soil. I will always remember his words and Navajo ways he shared with me. Thank you for your strength Ambrose.

Be strong, be safe, Carlan

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