Lost films of Hopi dances found in Camp Verde
CAMP VERDE - Ron Brattain's Indian art store in Casa Grande was as much a museum or reservation trading post as it was a retail store.
Customers came to shop. Others came to get an appraisal. And others came to do a little horse-trading.
In 1987 a woman by the name of Alice showed up with a box of Indian artifacts she said had come from her former employer, a Mesa dentist by the name of Milo Billingsley.
Among the items were a shield, a leather dress, a wooden flute, a ceremonial mask, a handful of woven baskets and three reels of 16 mm movie film.
The items looked to be of good quality and by all appearances the genuine article. Alice told Brattain she had been Billingsley's housekeeper for 30 years and that the items had been given to her from his estate when he died in 1982.
Brattain didn't buy her story of or the items until she returned later with documentation from the court showing they were hers to sell.
The lost ceremonies
Brattain closed his store shortly after 9-11 and eventually moved to Camp Verde. By then he had sold most of Billingsley's collection, except the films.
He was aware that Billingsley had connections with the Hopi, but only thing he knew about the films was what was printed on the label: "the lost ceremonies of the Hopi Cliff Dwellers."
In 2008, at a fund-raiser for the Verde Valley Archaeology Center, Brattain met VVAC founder Ken Zoll and asked if the center might be interested in the films.
Zoll accepted the offer and after viewing them became curious of their origin. His research led to a story of Billingsley's lifelong connection with the Hopi tribe and, more recently, a $6,500 grant to restore and archive the films for their historic value.
Zoll discovered that Billingsley first met the Hopi when he snuck off from his Iowa home to live with them when he was just 14 years old.
He later made his way back as a schoolteacher and was credited with starting the first school at Mishongnovi, on Second Mesa. Later on as a dentist, he had traveled frequently to the Hopi mesas to provide free dental care.
And because he had once showed up with an entire inventory of shoes, purchased from a shoe store that was going out of business, he became fondly known as "Billy Toche." According to Brattain, Toche means "shoes" in Hopi.
The degree to which he had been absorbed into Hopi life is exemplified in the fact they once came to his home in Mesa and built a ceremonial kiva in his yard.
Protector of Hopi religion
In 1921, while teaching at Second Mesa, Billingsley heard from the Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent that a fundamentalist Christian group was intent on putting an end to the Hopi snake dance, a ritual they group saw as pagan.
After his lobbying efforts went nowhere, he formed a Hopi dance troupe and began touring the country, performing the snake dance. In 1926 the dancers were invited to perform on the steps of the U. S. Capitol building.
Following that performance, the 69th Congress passed a resolution forever protecting the Hopi dances as well as their religious practices.
For years afterward, the dancers continued to perform around the country, in places like the Philadelphia Opera House and Carnegie Hall
Zoll's research shows that the 16 mm color films Billingsley's former housekeeper sold to Brattain are of performances filmed in 1958 and used by Billingsley as he toured the country giving lectures on his life with the Hopi.
Zoll's research also showed that items Brattain purchased from Alice were costumes and props from the earlier performances.
"I originally gave the films to the Hopi tribe," says Zoll, "Then about a year ago I heard about some National Film Preservation Foundation grants they had available to restore historic films.
"The archaeology center has received a grant that will cover about half the cost. We will have half done this year and apply again next year to preserve the other half," says Zoll.
In the mean time Zoll says he is planning to make a documentary film about the films and Billingsley's life.
"I have collected some memorabilia of Billingsley's travels, learned they performed at the 1936 and 1939 World's Fair and recently found out that the films from the 1923 performances on the capitol steps are in the Library of Congress. It's been a lot of fun."
Once the films are restored the originals will be housed at the Museum of Northern Arizona.