WHITERIVER — Though adept at a number of things, Isaiah Lee’s passion these days is horseshoes. It was basketball, but after a knee injury he looked for a pastime that would reduce the demand on his joints. When he discovered he could throw a horseshoe 40 feet and make a ringer, he found it.
“I did not see it much on the Mountain,” said Lee. “There are horseshoe pits at Show Low Park, Elks Lodge, Pinetop Lakes and Woodland Lake Park, but they are not used often. So, if you see footprints there, they are mine.”
Lee, a White Mountain Apache, says 50 or 60 people play horseshoes on the reservation all year long — even in the snow.
Lee has taken his pastime a step further. He is a member of the National Horseshoe Pitching Association and plays in tournaments. He participated in a world tournament in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 2019. He even played and beat a Netherlands player who wound up claiming the championship title. As of December, Lee is rated No. 3 in the men’s class from Arizona.
Lee’s bucket list includes being able to go back East and play in some of the tournaments there.
In the meantime, to pay for his horseshoe hobby, and the necessities of life, Lee works for Southern Arizona Legal Aid on the reservation as a tribal court advocate. It is a service based on eligibility for tribal members, and these days their primary focus is civil matters.
That was not his original career goal. Growing up in Show Low as one of 11 children, his father worked for Reidhead Lumber, and the family also had cattle and horses in Forestdale on the reservation. Lee said they were taught to work and survive with the livestock and also did roping and rodeo.
When he was in the first grade, he had a teacher named Mrs. Sweet who gave them a gift at Christmastime. It was a small toy jet plane. He took it home and showed it to his mother who explained that the plane was the one that made air noise in the sky with white trails behind it. From that moment, he wanted to “drive a jet plane.”
As a Boy Scout, his first merit badge was the aviation merit badge.
When Lee graduated from high school he had an opportunity to go to Hawaii and work with the Paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) on a ranch. He worked with their livestock and chickens and learned about the Hawaiian indigenous culture.
Forgetting about the jet plane, Lee enrolled in Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and chose sociology and criminal justice as his career path. Originally, he contemplated going into animal science but said he had a rough time finding an agribusiness he felt he would like.
“I have always loved working with people. My passion was to serve people,” he said.
Next, Lee headed to the University of Utah to earn a Master of Social Work degree, and there another opportunity presented itself. A radio station advertised for a show host replacement. Lee noted the ad, but it wasn’t until eights months later when the ad was still running that he inquired about it.
Learning he had no experience, the standard, “We’ll call you,” was the response. Station officials really did call though, and he was given a 2 a.m. opportunity to host a half hour show.
He played some jazz and announced the music and the artists. He was invited back to help on the show. And then, one night, the regular host couldn’t make and he handled the show alone.
He took over the Sunday morning show and made “The Circle of Life” his own program, leading to speaking engagements and putting on powwows.
“It was a change in my own personal scenery. I became a celebrity,” he said.
Another opportunity presented itself to Lee when John Ranier Jr. of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation taught him to play the Native American love flute. Lee loved it and began another hobby of making flutes.
After about 10 people commissioned him to make them flutes, his enthusiasm waned and it was no longer his hobby. It did open doors for him though. He has played at many weddings and events around the globe and is still called upon to do so.
Another opportunity — seeing an ad inviting Native Americans to audition for a movie in Camp Verde, Lee was intrigued but dismissed the thought. Later that morning, he decided to go to Camp Verde to check it out.
On arrival, he saw many people rehearsing and almost left but decided to try. When it was time to audition he was asked how he would play the part. Lending his on interpretation, they liked that he was imaginative and he was cast in “More Than Fry Bread.”
The movie premiered at Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino and was later shown in Show Low. Even a little girl who was at the movie recognized Lee when leaving the theater and shouted, “Mom, it’s him.”
‘Take the risk’
Not yet retired, and the father of four grown children, Lee says that he believes all children should have a pet. It teaches them many life skills — including how to relate to people as an adult.
“I was one who did not really accept rejection,” said Lee. “Deciding at 10 a.m. that day to go audition for the movie, I just decided to do it for the fun of it.
“And, Hawaii — I just decided to go and experience it. I played my flute for weddings. I have done many things. I did it for the fun of it and for the love of people. I was not prepared for any of those moments, but did it — for the fun of it.”
I would tell any young person, “If there is any opportunity to do anything, whether they wanted to do it or not, take the risk,” said Lee.
Lee said his parents instilled in their children to be self-sufficient and to take care of themselves.
“They told us when you are healthy, you can help others,” said Lee.
One of his sisters is tribal Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood and another Phoebe Nez, who also works for the tribe. Both, he says, love helping people. In fact, he says all of his siblings are out there helping someone.
As to access to the chairwoman, Lee said she is very busy and he tries not to bother her. He may talk to her twice a month for a only a couple of minutes. He said when she worked for former Chairman Ronnie Lupe she had more time to attend family gatherings, but these days she is busy.
Lee’s basic philosophy, taught to him by his parents, is simple: “If you have been blessed, bless others.”
Author Mitch Albom said, “... There are no random acts, that we are all connected. That you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind.” That being the case, here in the White Mountains there are people you need to meet, and places you need to know about it. And, on the last Friday of each month, I will connect you with some of those as I go ’Round the Mountain.