On Labor Day 2005, my husband, Nick, and I made our annual trek to the Shinnecock Powwow in Southampton, Long Island, for its final day of celebration. I first laid eyes on Chief Spirit Eagle as he sat ramrod straight on a crate in front of a trailer parked several feet behind a vendor’s booth.
Amidst all of the beautiful and colorful regalia, silver, turquoise, coral and wampum jewelry, his unusual hat caught my eye. It told a story: two sacred feathers – one tall, one short – wrapped with strips of red leather carefully tucked into an intricately beaded hatband with the word “COMANCHE” spelled in the tiny pony beads. The band surrounded the hat’s crown of well-worn brown leather that matched the skin on his thin, sunken, old, proud face. A pair of plastic goggles rested on top of the hat’s wide brim, as if he were prepared to work on some special project.
His smooth leather vest topped a green, button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, an American flag sewn on the upper part of the right sleeve. His wrinkled hands rested on the knees of his baggy blue jeans, which were held up by a hand-tooled brown leather belt. From his left shoulder hung an ornately beaded belt with a huge pair of tan leather work gloves and a set of keys attached to it.
A brightly colored bandana was neatly tied about his neck, around which also hung a thunderbird concho and a breastplate made of leather strands, turquoise beads and small, white, narrow animal bones.
I knew this man was someone special, a unique individual, an unusual character, a one-of-a-kind someone you meet once in a lifetime. I snapped his photo from a distance.
It was exactly one year later that I actually met Spirit Eagle, the proud Comanche medicine chief. My husband and I waited patiently as he chatted amiably with a young man. This time, he wore fringed leather chaps over his blue jeans. His fabulous hat sat proudly atop his gray hair, which was neatly braided into a tiny pony tail tucked up underneath.
When we finally got our chance to speak to him, he was a little incensed that I had taken his picture without his knowledge. I explained, “I’m an artist, I want to paint your portrait.” He seemed intrigued and agreed to meet with me to see my work, which would decide whether he would allow me to portray him on canvas. He did.
Little did I know that he would become part of my family’s life for the next eight years, not just as an artist’s subject but as a friend, a teacher and a grandfather.
In his youth, he was a strong and graceful dancer. He designed costumes for the Metropolitan Opera and Josephine Baker, but his later life remains a mystery, his family unknown. Having kept his friends separate, we have only now discovered each other’s existence and that his given name was Byron Gibson. He told me I was the only artist ever allowed the honor to paint him. I don’t know if that is true; I may never know. Chief Spirit Eagle died last December. I know he died as proudly as he lived, being the grandson of Comanche Chief Quanah Parker.
I will miss his phone calls with the Navajo greeting, “Ya’at’eeh,” “Happy July Fourth,” “Happy First Day of Spring.” Chief Spirit Eagle was a great chief, a mentor, a positive energy and a believer in me, who I feel with me every day. Who could ever forget this one-of-a-kind?