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In Bessie Yellowhair, Halsell met and lived with members of the Navajo Indian tribe in Arizona.  Eventually, she took on a Navajo name (borrowed from one of the families she stayed with) and appearance in order to pass as a member of the tribe.  She worked as a nanny and housekeeper for an Anglo family in California.

About her experiences living on an Indian reservation, Halsell wrote, “The isolation, the silence prevents my sleeping.  I am not attuned to this world without humming machines, our background lullabies, as it were, of churning dishwashers, stereos and motors from heaters and coolers, airplanes, buses, automobiles.”
On her time as Bessie Yellowhair compared to her experiences as a black woman, Halsell observed, “Now as I begin preparations to ‘pass’ as an Indian, I feel more lost than I ever felt as a ‘black’ woman.  My Soul Sister experiences were always, at the core, akin to going home.  Nothing black was alien to me…I was going back ‘home’ in the sense that with the blacks I returned to my religious beliefs…When I turned ‘black,’ I learned to feel that spiritually I was black, and today I feel Black as well as white.  But spiritually—can I ever feel Indian?  In Soul Sister, I kept my name and darkened my skin.  In this instance, I keep my skin—and change my name.  The prospect is challenging, and a little frightening.  As ‘Bessie Yellowhair” I feel I am permanently abandoning myself; that I have to submerge, if not eradicate, all that I have been.”


Reader letters and sample research notes for Bessie Yellowhair

Bessie 3

Bessie doc 1

Bessie notes

Click here for more Bessie Yellowhair documents from the Halsell collection.