TONALEA, Ariz. – Billy Reese Kee departed for the spirit world July 18, leaving behind a legacy of service to his Navajo people. He was 66.
Born in Pinon, Ariz. May 8, 1943, Kee was Red House Clan, born for the Yucca Fruit Strung-out-in-a-Line Clan. He was raised by an elderly couple, who he called grandparents. Funeral services took place July 22, at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Tuba City. He was laid to rest at the family plot in White Mesa, Ariz.
Kee was the founder and chairman of the grassroots group the Forgotten People, and played an instrumental role in the activism that led to the 43-year lift on the Bennett Freeze in May. The ban was enacted to curtail a Hopi-Navajo land dispute.
The ban restricted the renovation of Navajo homes, located on 700,000 acres in western Arizona’s Black Mesa region, without the Hopi Tribe’s approval. This included the addition of water and electrical lines, and prohibited most infrastructure improvement to the impoverished area.
“Billy kept the motivation of the people moving forward,” said Don Yellowman, Forgotten People president. “But he had so much more work to do.”
Kee’s daughter, Cindy Powers, translated a statement for her mother, Mary Rose Kee, from Navajo to English:
“I am very proud to be the wife of Billy Reese Kee; not only as a family man, but for the work he has done for his communities. I always reminded him of how we met to where we are today. I supported him by telling him how proud I am of what he is doing for the Navajo people.”
Mary and Billy were married for 51 years. The couple met at Intermountain School in Utah. After Mary graduated from high school, she left for Los Angeles to pursue a modeling career. Billy, smitten and in love, soon went after her. After a brief reunion, the couple married at the Open Door Church in Los Angeles, and settled there for nearly two decades.
In 1974, the family moved back to the reservation and built a hogan in the Bennett Freeze area. The tribe provided the funding for the cement foundation, as for the rest, the couple was on their own; they lived without running water and electricity.
Kee raised sheep, horses and cattle, and began his second career as an advocate for his people.
“Finally, due to his efforts we got running water one month ago,” Mary said. “We have no electricity or indoor plumbing yet or hot water. None of our children have water and electricity yet.”
Powers, one of five siblings, described her dad as a dedicated family man, and felt loved, even when he was out fighting for his people. “I didn’t feel like I was neglected by him by the amount of work that he was doing away from home. I admire my dad for being able to be a part of the grassroots.”
In addition to working on tapping resources for Bennett Freeze residents, Kee also tried to get aid from the Navajo government to help the people that have been exposed to uranium contaminated water in the Black Falls/Box Springs area.
He wanted all Navajo water carriers to have access to clean, safe drinking water.
His longtime friend, George Ke, lives in the Black Falls area. He admired Kee, who he called his brother, for branching out to represent the people in the uranium tainted area. “He was just getting into it when he passed away.”
Kee served on boards inside and outside his community to provide housing, waterlines, paved roads, health and social services, economic, community development and emergency services. He advocated for the rights of the elderly and handicapped.
Debbie Yazzie opened her home to the Forgotten People two years ago, where the group currently holds its weekly meeting. Kee was usually the first person to arrive, and would help set up chairs. “He told me that I was a good person for opening my house to my people. He really encouraged me.”
Marsha Monteresky worked closely with Kee on Bennett Freeze issues, and has been instrumental in sending out press releases and getting the news out on the group’s causes. “Billy was an inspiration to us all.” She said the group would continue to work toward Kee’s goal to provide all Navajo people clean, safe drinking water.
Kee was preceded in death by his parents Ruth and Fred Kee and his son Christopher Kee. He is survived by his wife; brother, John Kee; sister, Caroline Joe; four girls, Vicky Begay, Priscilla Kee, Cindy Powers and Kristine Kee; son, Errol Kee; and nine grandchildren.
Send cards to Mary Rose Kee, P.O. Box 73, Tonalea, AZ 86044.