Birdshead Jr., and Lavera Birdshead will celebrate 40 years
of marriage on Oct. 25, 2015. Their life revolves around the
Creator, each other, their children, grandchildren, and the
gift of songs.
Sitting down with 84-year-old Saul Birdshead Jr., Arapaho, and
his wife of almost 40 years, Lavera, one is immediately drawn into
their spiritual connection with one another. It would be hard to
write about one without the other because of this connection they
both share. Evident by Saul's comment, "my life started in 1975
when I met my wife and we have been together ever since."
Saul begins his story with his birth at the old Concho hospital
in 1931. He and his family lived in Cantonment where his dad worked
as a farmer.
"My mother and father were Susie and Saul Sr., both Arapaho,
my grandmother was Traveler and my grandfather was Scabby Bull.
We rode horses all the time as we were growing up. Some people had
saddles, but mostly we rode bareback, and all the rest of the people
that lived around us all had horses and rode horses," he said.
He remembers being one of the poorest people around there, but
said they never went without food or things they needed.
"We would kill rabbits, squirrels, and we had a lot of chickens.
We would eat the eggs and kill chickens to eat and we had a milk
cow," Saul reflected. "We would all go fishing, hunting and any
games that involved riding horses we would play. The horses were
the only way for us to get around because we didn't have cars and
I don't really remember when we got automobiles."
He said there was a lot of prejudice in those days, "but it
didn't seem to bother us too much. We didn't talk to those white
people and they didn't talk to us, so we all got along all right.
The ones that did talk to us we got along with them good, and they
learned a lot from us, and we learned English from them, so there
was no problems there."
Saul's memories mostly revolved around riding horses and singing
as a child. As a matter of fact, if you ask Saul what he loves the
most, his answer would be his wife, family and singing.
"I remember I was 8 years old when I first started singing.
I used to play outside and had rocks I would pretend were cars,
and I would be singing a song. When I would get to a spot where
I didn't know it anymore I would stop and go in the house and tell
my mother, 'sing that song.' I would tell her to sing that War Mother
song because she was the chairman of the Canton War Mothers and
she would sing it," Saul said. "I learned from her and I would start
playing again, singing, and I would forget it and I would go back
into the house and have her sing it again. That's how I learned
to sing that way. Singing came easy to me."
Saul said one of the main songs he learned was the Cheyenne
Sundance song because they lived right in the, "Cheyenne Sundance
area and when the Sundance was going on I would go over and sing.
Once you get started singing and get used to it, it's easy to switch
over and sing a different song."
Life passed in Canton where Saul attended school until the 9th
grade, then left to attend school in Kansas at Haskell until he
graduated high school. He said immediately after he graduated he
went into the U.S. Army.
"That was the thing to do, join the military, I didn't even
think about it, I just went into the service and retired after 23
years as a Chief Warrant Officer 3."
It was here Saul became adamant that all anyone needed to know
about his time in the service was he was over there (Korea) fighting
Barefoot powwow from left to right-Warren Sankey Sr., Saul
Birdshead Sr., Saul Birdshead Jr., Oscar Birdshead and Jess
"I was a Chief Warrant Officer 3 and worked on nuclear weapons.
Most of the time I worked under the classification of top secret,
people didn't know what I did they just knew I worked with nuclear
weapons. It was nobody's business but ours. Basically we traveled
a lot, went to a lot of places and it's not anyone's business what
we done over there and why," Saul stated firmly. "I have never written
down anywhere I have been or anything I did in the Army. All people
need to know is I was fighting for you and you and everybody else
and that's all they need to know
and I left as a Chief Warrant
Office, CW3, so I must of done a pretty good job."
Saul laughed, breaking the serious overtones that had taken
over the conversation.
After retiring, it was then in 1975 that he met his wife Lavera
and it was love at first sight.
"I knew her folks and brothers and one day I came over here
to Apache and she came over
I took one look at her and said
to myself, 'man that girl is cute, beautiful girl.' I asked her,
'how old are you' and she said, 'I'm old enough.' She wouldn't tell
me and I thought man I might get into trouble here cause she looked
too young, like 15 or 16 years old," Saul laughed. "I guess she
was older than that, she was about 20, and I took a chance and said
come on let's go and we have been together ever since then. Forty
years Oct. 25 and we have three children."
Their oldest daughter, Susan works at Comanche Memorial Hospital,
second daughter Jennifer, works in Washington, D.C., and their youngest
is their son Nicolas, Army veteran, who works as an IT person at
the University of Oklahoma (OU).
Both Saul and Lavera's eyes lit up when they began to talk about
their three children and their seven grandchildren.
"We have the Arapaho Sundance, the way we worship, and all the
kids come when we have that every year and another way we worship
is here in Apache, the Dance of the Mountain Gods and they all come
home for that," Lavera shared.
Saul waited for Lavera to finish sharing about their family
then said he had been married to one other woman, before Lavera's
time, and they had had three children together, all of whom had
died of alcoholism.
"After Lavera and I had our three kids, I would take our kids,
as they were growing up, over there to visit my other three kids
and I would tell them this is what alcohol will do to you if you
you know it must of stuck with them because none of
them drink and I don't even think they smoke. They remember seeing
how sick those other three were before they passed away," Saul said.
Stopping for a minute, Saul watched as Lavera rose and brought
glasses of tea to the kitchen table. He reached over as she sat
back down and gently touched her hand as he turned his attention
back to the interview.
"One of the good things about me and my life, I mean I have
a lot of good things in my life, but one of them is I am a singer.
I am an Arapaho singer and as far as I am concerned I am one of
the best Arapaho singers, Northern and Southern Arapaho. Yes, so
I would just say I am an Arapaho singer. I make Arapaho songs that
have words in them," Saul's excitement about singing was showing
in his face as he continued. "The reason why these others don't
is because they don't know how to speak Arapaho, so they can't put
any words into their songs. When we sing the songs that I sing with
Arapaho words in them, I always tell these guys when I sing these
songs, you sit with me and you learn that way."
He reflected back and said it was after coming out of the military
he was singing Northern Arapaho songs back then when a friend of
his from Lame Deer, Montana, Phillip Whiteman sent him two tapes
and said he wanted him to learn the tapes.
"There were Arapaho songs and that's where I learned to sing
those songs. Before I would sing all the different tribes' songs
when I first started singing."
He said an old man in Washington State told him once, "you are
a good singer. You sing good, always sing, every chance you get,
sing your songs. Sing our songs, different ones. When you do that
you sing good and if you will do that, then all these different
singers are going to ask you to sing with them."
Saul said that's what he did. He sang songs from the Pine Ridge
people and a lot of others.
"I used to dance too, was pretty good and won a lot, but when
that got too hard I just started singing, which was easier, so that's
mostly what I do. I danced Traditional because you dance kind of
slow and it's a lot easier to dance that way than the Fancy dance.
I used to dance Fancy when I was able to do that, but after a certain
age I switched to Traditional," Saul said. "But now I like to sing.
I teach my grandkids and relatives, I teach them how to sing. The
way I teach them is I tell them when I go sit at that drum I am
going to sing and if you want to learn then come sit by me and sing.
That way you will learn how to sing those words."
Saul said he can still remember he was just starting to sing
the Southern way when Arapaho Chief, Willie Hail, "which they had
made me an Arapaho Chief in 1971, but anyway he told me, 'Junior',
that's what they called me. 'Junior we need you to sing Arapaho
songs because when you sing Arapaho songs these fellas are going
to sit with you and they are going to learn from you. We need you
to do that, so starting now you sing Arapaho songs.' And that's
what I have been doing ever since."
Saul even received a grant funded by the National Endowment
of the Arts to tape as many Arapaho songs as he could.
Birdshead Jr.'s grandfather, Scabby Bull and grandmother,
Traveler. Saul spent many days with his grandparents as a
Lavera, who had been silently sitting and listening leaned over
after Saul paused and said, "When he first started Willie Hail said
all their singers were dying out and that's why they got him to
do that and he got that grant to sing and record the songs. And
now there are at least 30 that can sing those songs. Saul recorded
not only those songs but Sundance songs, Sweat songs, Flag songs
and even talked about how to build a sweat."
Saul said it was a good thing to see and be a part of younger
generations learning the songs, "They still do it that way, sit
with us to learn the songs and when I am not there they still will
sing these songs. It's a good thing to see and be a part of. The
songs can be carried on, when I am gone and I am not here, they
can all carry on the songs, and we have some beautiful songs as
Arapahos, and Cheyenne."
Saul smiled over at Lavera and said, "Lavera, too, will be sitting
somewhere behind us singing with us. Sometimes when we are singing
she does that now, go stand behind the drum and sing and that's
something you see a lot of nowadays, women sitting out there with
the drum singing the same song
it's a good thing."
Saul took a moment and began to gently tap the top of the kitchen
table as if it were a drum and in a serenely deep voice began to
sing an Arapaho Flag song. As he sang, Lavera began to join in,
singing in a softer quieter tone.
"That's a song I made, the words in there are talking to you.
It is saying my friends, my relatives, look up there, look at this
flag as it is waving, and the wind is causing it to blow
it is a good song," Saul said.
Sitting quietly for a few moments, Lavera and Saul both agreed
a lot of things happen between them and the Spirit, though they
don't ask for these things to happen, they just do. They said a
lot of times they don't sit down and hold hands and pray together,
but they are always spiritually connected and they always agree
in the spirit.
They have story after story of miracles that have occurred in
their lives and both know that if they hang on to one another and
stand firm in their faith and trust, that every time, in every situation,
everything will work out. And that's how, at 84 years of age, Saul
Birdshead Jr., continues to live his life.