West by Southwest – December 2010
by Ernie Bulow
A girl baby named Kay Curley was born to a traditional Navajo family in the Sheep Springs area in either 1920 or 1922. Her Navajo name was Kaibah, and she would use it in her artistic life. She herded sheep, learned to cook, attended ceremonies with her grandmother and finished her primary education at the Toadlena Indian School. Then her family fell on hard times following John Collier’s sheep reduction blitz in 1935.
Kay found her way to California with a missionary family and stayed there. During World War II she worked in an aircraft plant in Long Beach. At that point she became homesick for Navajo country and moved back to New Mexico, becoming a dorm attendant for her old alma mater, Toadlena Indian School.
In 1947 she moved on to the Indian School in Phoenix, Arizona where she was an interpreter, teacher and head of special education until 1952. She first performed as a singer at the 1951 Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial. She was called “The girl with a smile in her voice.” Over the years she continued to perform, and recorded three albums of Navajo music. They were “Kaibah,” “Navajo Love Songs,” and “Songs from the Navajo Nation.”
In 1956 she married an engineer from Missouri named Russel C. Bennett. Russel had come to Gallup to build a new oil refinery. In the early years of her marriage Kay would travel much farther than Long Beach. The Bennetts lived in Afghanistan for a couple of years and traveled through fifteen countries.
The decade of the sixties turned out to be a rich and amazing journey for Kaibah. She continued her singing career and her first two albums appeared in this period. In 1963 she formed an arts and crafts enterprise known as Kaibah Company, to help poor Navajos sell their crafts. She published her autobiography Kaibah: Recollection of a Navajo Girlhood in 1964.
In 1968 she was named New Mexico’s “Mother of the Year.” The following year she published her second book, co-authored by husband Russ, called A Navajo Saga, which was a fictionalized account of life on the Navajo Reservation in the late nineteenth century. It is sometimes categorized as a juvenile book.
In the early sixties she started designing clothes and making dolls from scratch. At first she made Navajo dolls, sometimes with a white streak in their hair that made them look like her. Over the years she made dolls of other tribes. Shortly before her death she opened a museum she called “The Beautiful Indian Doll Museum.” By then her dolls were selling for as much as a thousand dollars.
Her creations are still very collectable and pop up from time to time on the Internet. With all her other activities Kay found time to make a large number of these charming figures. Sadly, the museum ended with her passing.
She was active with programs of human welfare, including the local hospital board. Her politics came to a head in 1984 when she decided to run for Tribal Chairman of the Navajos. No other woman had run for such a high office and her candidacy was popular. Unfortunately an opposing faction got her candidacy thrown out on the grounds that she didn’t live on the Reservation.
In 1990 Bennett challenged two rules. First, that anyone running for office had to live on Navajo land. She owned (so to speak) her family land. Second, nobody could run for Chairman unless they had held previous office in the tribe or were presently employed by the Navajo Nation. Eventually these rules were changed, but Kaibah ran as a write-in candidate.
Bennett and her dolls were featured in Ceremonial publications several times over the years. She certainly belongs in the pantheon of Ceremonial boosters. Kay Bennett served on the Ceremonial Board from 1974-1982. The Albuquerque Journal had written of her first performance back in 1951, “Her electric personality captures the audience from the very first moment. Her brilliant satin and velvet costume and turquoise jewelry, fluid grace of movement and poise makes a favorable and unforgettable impression on her audience.”
And don’t forget that slash of snow white in her black hair. She was a striking sight throughout her life, elegant and always smiling. She continued to perform until the end. Shortly before her death she appeared at a dinner held to honor the Navajo Code Talkers – a typical event for her.
She continued to be a hostess for Ceremonial and the Navajo Fair. Recorded more albums and wrote more books. Her self-illustrated children’s book Kesh: The Navajo Indian Cat was published in 1985. It is rather scarce these days on the rare book market.
Kay Bennett was a remarkable woman and is remembered today as a model for young women along with Navajo leaders like Annie Wauneka. Past Navajo President Albert Hale said of her, “Any loss of a person like that is a loss for the Nation, and for the Navajo People.”