photo by Carol Highsmith
by Chris Isaacs
You spent your childhood wild and free,
And none of us could then foresee
How you’d touch our lives, or to what degree.
We never knew you, Michael Bia.
You life was in the land and sky;
Vermillion cliffs and mesas high.
These were yours to occupy.
You were of Diné, Michael Bia.
You rode the bulls and rode them well,
But you wouldn’t leave the reservation’s Citadel
Though it was known you could excel.
Ah, you could ride ’em Michael Bia.
The White House called; you left your land,
And off you went to Viet Nam,
To a war you did not understand.
You did your duty, Michael Bia.
You fought with honor and with pride,
But before the fighting could subside
In that far off land, you died.
You gave the ultimate, Michael Bia.
At Window Rock in sixty-eight
They turned a bull out of the gate,
And his bell rang loud to reiterate
Our thank you, Michael Bia.
Diné, and white men, too
Stood and shed a tear for you;
And though your time on earth is through
May God keep you, Michael Bia.
Now often when I think of the past
Or cross that reservation vast,
Or see Old Glory at half-mast,
I think of Michael Bia.
Ya’at’eeh, Hastiin! (Ya-ta-hey, Has-teen!)
© 2001, Chris Isaacs, used with permission
(Chris notes: Diné is what the Navajos call themselves; it means “The People.”)
Chris Isaacs’ poem has become a Memorial Day Tradition for the BAR-D. See him recite this poem in a video from the 2017 Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering.
He writes about this poem in his award-winning book, Rhymes, Reasons and Pack Saddle Proverbs:
There are things that happen in our lives that we have absolutely no control over, which become a part of us forever. Such was the case with the poem about Michael Bia.
I got out of the U. S. Marine Corps in January of 1967 just as things were really starting to heat up in Vietnam. Michael Bia was leading the bull riding standings for the AIRCA when he was drafted and sent to Viet Nam just about the time I was discharged. He never came home.
In 1968 my wife Helena and I were at the Fourth of July rodeo in Window Rock, Arizona, where I was entered when something happened that haunted me for years. The Navajo tribe paid tribute to Michael Bia at that rodeo by taking his chaps and spurs and attaching them to a bull with Michael’s bull rope and then turning the bull loose in the arena during a moment of silence. Nothing has ever affected me quite like that short moment of tribute to a fellow cowboy/comrade-in-arms, and I have thought of it many, many times over the years…
The first time that I tried to recite it, I broke down and cried, which kept me from trying it again for quite a while. Then in 1997 at the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering I was on the Veterans’ Session with Joel Nelson, Rod McQueary, and some others, and managed to get through the entire thing…I have had many Vets thank me for the poem, which means a great deal to me…I did a show near Washington, D. C. a few years ago, and made it to the Wall (the Vietnam Memorial) where I found Michael’s name…”
See a post with photos of Michael Bia on Chris Isaacs’ Facebook page.
Find Chris at the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering August 6-8, 2020 in Prescott. The lineup includes Mary Abbott, Anderson’s, Sally Bates, Floyd Beard, Colt Blankman, Broken Chair Band, Dale Burson, Lola Chiantaretto, Dean Cook, Sam Deleeuw, Mike Dunn, Don Fernwalt, Linda Lee Filener, Rolf Flake, Belinda Gail, Jack George, Amy M. Hale, Audrey Hankins, Joni Harms, Randy Huston, Chris Isaacs, Gary Kirkman, Jo Lynne Kirkwood, Steve Lindsey, Mary Matli, Maxwell’s, Dave McCall, Deanna Dickinson McCall, Mark Munzert, Miska Paget, Abby Payne, Mike Prince, Rusty Pistols Reloaded, Makenzie Slade, Jay Snider, Dave Stamey, Gail Starr, Gail Steiger, Tom Swearingen, Duke Vance, Tom Weathers, and Ashley Westcott.
This 2006 photo of the Vietnam Memorial is by contemporary photographer, author, and publisher Carol M. Highsmith and included in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive at The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. The accompanying note tells, “Deliberately setting aside the controversies of the war, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors the men and women who served when their Nation called upon them. The designer, Maya Lin, felt that the politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service and their lives. She kept the design elegantly simple to allow everyone to respond and remember.”
The Highsmith Archive notes that, “Highsmith, a distinguished and richly-published American photographer, has donated her work to the Library of Congress since 1992. Starting in 2002, Highsmith provided scans or photographs she shot digitally with new donations to allow rapid online access throughout the world. Her generosity in dedicating the rights to the American people for copyright free access also makes this Archive a very special visual resource.”
Find a selection of Memorial Day poems at CowboyPoetry.com.
(Request permission for use of this poem; the photo has no restrictions on its use.)