Christine M. Ami, Ph.D.
Grant Manager, Navajo Cultural Arts Program
I would watch her weave for hours, sometimes laying on the floor with my eyes closed listening the thump of the comb as she carefully secured one line of wool to the next. I could follow the sound of the warp as she moved the batten in preparation for her next line. I would sit next to her while she wove and every once in a while, she would call me over to put a few lines in, watching how I handled the comb, worked with the weft, and practiced my turns.
To sit in front of her loom for a photo op was strange - and while everyone in the room was laughing, smiling, and enjoying the last few minutes we had together before we headed off to Flagstaff, I knew at 10 years old that I wasn’t the weaver of that beautiful storm pattern rug despite what that soon to be developed film would present.
This is a scene of what Philip Deloria could define as Playing Indian (1999) or what I would be inclined to call playing Navajo (check out my dissertation [Today, We Butcher: A study on Navajo Traditional Sheep Butchering, 2016] - it’s mostly on sheep and butchering but you can check out some insight to playing Navajo debates). It isn’t as uncommon as we would think and with today's technology - it happens almost spontaneously. Photo ops for graduations, weddings, tourism, magazines, Instagram and Facebook have sprung up in recent years with Navajo individuals pretending to be deeply entrenched with traditional practices, even assuming traditional artisan roles such as weavers, potters, basket makers, silversmiths, etc. I am not referring to photographs of Navajo individuals who document key moments of their lives where they have left their comfort zone to engage and create with their own hands for the first or billionth time. I am referencing those who knowingly have no experience with the art pretending to work on a cultural arts piece for a mere photo op, stealing intellectual property and artistic abilities.
Most recently I was called in to assess an incident where an Instagram photo and Facebook video had been released of a Navajo individual who was pretending to be the weaver of a Navajo sashbelt in progress. I later found out that there was a Navajo run production team taking footage. They wanted some b-roll of Navajos weaving - what could be more of testimonial that our cultural practices persist in the heart of the Navajo Nation than an image of a beautiful Navajo woman sitting in front of a loom weaving? The only problem - there were no Navajo women weaving at that moment. But there were warped looms in a locked room with no one present at the moment to claim ownership and there was an available Navajo person willing to pose although had no knowledge of that style of weaving and were well aware that the weaving on the loom was not of their making. The loom was positioned incorrectly and hands that were not the artist moved the dowel that separated the male and female warp. Photos were taken; video was captured; posting on social media took place. In just a few moments – a theft had occurred.
Stolen - credit of artwork.
Stolen - intellectual property.
Stolen - credit of the maker.
Stolen - the intimacy between the sashbelt maker and their loom.
While there is a tremendous lesson to learn from this incident for those parties involved - they never offered to make amends with the weavers; they never offered their apologies to the looms. I was the one left to clean up the aftermath that they had created - I was the one who had to let the weavers know what I had found out about the violation of their creative space and the violation to their identities as Navajo weavers. A few days later on a cold Saturday morning we sat as a group and we talked while they wove - the looms listened. That day the weavers finished their pieces and began new sashes - the looms forgave them - the looms forgave me. Thinking about the event and the many other instances that I have seen on social media, television, and magazines where Navajo play Indian, I felt that there was a need for public discussion to take place about why it is wrong for individuals to pose for photos, pretending to be an artist of an art piece that they did not create, Navajo or not. So here are my ponderings ... each one worthy of their own posting or book.
Would an individual (Navajo or not) pose for a photo in front of a painting, sculpture or other fine art with such confidence as to suggest that that artwork in the photo was of their own making? Probably not. I've been asking my colleagues (who are weavers, painters, silversmiths, and photographers) this question - and their responses are overwhelmingly the same - absolutely not. Then my question remains, why would this be okay for someone to do so with a cultural art? The debate between the cultural and fine arts has been in existence for more than a century (Check out this oldie but goodie by Boas Primitive Art ). This is the very rationale for creating a Navajo Weaving and Navajo Silversmithing BFA program. Graduates of this program are set to re-envision the future of the southwest Indian art’s culture and economic markets through visual sovereignty strategies. Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie’s (Seminole/Diné) posits visual sovereignty in “Dragonfly’s Home” in Visual Currencies: Reflections on Native Photography (2009) as “a particular type of consciousness rooted in confidence which is exhibited as a strength in cultural and visual presence” (p. 10). She continues, “visual sovereignty does not ask permission to exist, but … require[s] responsibility to continue” (p. 11). In this manner the NCA BFA Emphases seed its students with responsibilities to Diné community, culture, and ways of understanding the world through the language of art. What this sashbelt incident has taught me is that our BFA graduates have a lot of work ahead of them - working to confront the lack of cultural and visual respect that our cultural arts face from both within and without the culture. Their positions, their voices, and their work are stories of survivance.
Does the fact that this was a Navajo loom, that it was a Navajo individual willing to pose, and that the production company was Navajo run make this theft okay? As Navajo people, we so easily charge non-Navajos with cultural misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and even unauthentic authorship. With photography and videography in mind, we can look at the work of Edward Curtis, who for decades has been rightfully criticized by Native artists, activists, and scholars for his staging of Indigenous peoples for photos, blending two or more completely distinct indigenous populations for the purpose of capturing the "Indian" before he vanished. Curtis' most exemplifying piece of our Navajo culture fading off into the sunset is found in his composition of Vanishing Race. The location of our dismal future was contained within the walls of Canyon de Chelly, whose canyon mouth is less than 30 minutes from Tsaile. Images of colonization and the theft of our indigenous visual sovereignty was and is not a hard sell for these Edward Curtis case scenarios. So....
...what happens when the lack of cultural and artistic respect is committed by our own people? As I was searching for answers, trying to understand why this incident had taken place, I replayed to the rationalizations presented to me by those who were involved in this incident:
“I didn’t know it was a classroom,”
“There are looms all over campus,”
“We just used the loom as a prop,”
“We weren’t playing,”
“I’m a weaver - I know it is not okay to mess with someone’s loom,"
"If I knew it was someone’s, I would have never,”
“I’m never going volunteer for anything again,”
“We didn’t have time to find a weaver,”
“I’m sorry. I should have known better”.
I could continue but you get the idea - the excuses are endless. For whatever the intention, rationalization or excuse, scenarios such as these are not only demonstrations of a lack of respect for our own cultural arts but also for our own people. This is internal colonization at its best. No longer is it an outsider who wishes to capture our people in the thrust of cultural exoticism; rather, it is our own people who have staged these scenes to maintain the static visual representation of what a Navajo should look like and should know how to do. We self imposed what people like Edward Curtis had visually depicted of us. We self-romanticize, self-fetishize - and in the end - for what purpose? - To continue to prove to the outside world that we are still Navajo? Or worse, to prove to ourselves that we are still Navajo? Or worse yet, we just want a pretty picture for Instagram? In any of these scenarios the larger issue is about respect, or rather, lack thereof. Lack of respect for the artist, the loom, and the weaving. It also suggest a lack of self-accountability of the individuals who see no harm in just taking a picture.
And after reflecting upon this scenario, the excuses presented to me, and understanding the internal colonization at work - I don't think that those individuals who were involved in those photos understand the complexities nor the ramifications of their actions; moreover, since, I was the one blocked from Instagram and Facebook profiles, it appears as if they feel as if it were their personal space that was violated - not the weavers who were creating on the looms. Their social media block serves as a hope that I could never reprimand them for their posting of culturally appropriating photos again. It was a failed attempt to make me feel as if I had been the one who overstepped my boundaries.
Regardless of the displaced anger of those who sat in front of the loom that wasn't theirs, one of their excuses continued to linger on my mind: "the looms were just props." How could these looms be used as mere props when their existence alone represents the world around us, the deities who we pray to, and the elements of nature who challenge us? Weaving looms are not coat hangers; they are not pull up bars; they are not jungle gyms for children; they are not props. These looms are our world (Check out the Bee ádeil’íní: Navajo Cultural Arts Language Series segment on the cultural teaching of the loom for more insight on the cultural teachings of the loom). And while to many, one sashbelt is the same as the rest, serving as a perfect Navajo background to authenticate Navajo photographic status, to the sashbelt weaver there are so many distinctions between each creation. From geometric and algebraic calculations, wool, yarn, or cotton selections, respinning decisions, to the accompanying songs, prayers and thoughts woven into each piece that will journey with the person wearing the sash during their intended occasions - each sash is unique and each sashbelt weaver is keenly aware of that. There are reasons why and when an individual can or cannot wear or use a sashbelt, many of which are associated to key transitions in our life like puberty, child birth, and after giving birth. Moreover, in none of our cultural teachings does the rationale "I need it for a photo" justify the use of a sashbelt or the need to sit in front of a loom and pretend to be the weaver.
With that, this scenario and those similar bring up a larger and perhaps more frightening question: does the aesthetic perpetuation of cultural arts trump the perpetuation of the cultural art skills, knowledge, and purpose? The creation of the NCAP was to (1) continue the intergenerational transfer of Navajo cultural arts knowledge; (2) perpetuate the technique and skills of the Navajo cultural arts, and (3) reconnect the cultural teachings to the cultural arts practices. While aesthetics matter for a plethora of reasons, including rather practical issues such as fit, wear, and use, the empowerment of our cultural arts teachings, skills, and purpose should and must trump the mere "playing Navajo" mantra. We are Navajo people, not because we wear Navajo cultural arts but because our mother's have given us that birthright and with that birthright comes responsibilities to our way of life. Being Navajo is more than playing a Navajo model, more than having a census number, and more than "coming home" to vote during elections. Being Navajo entails community and cultural obligations that tie us to our land - including an engagement with, respect for, and responsibility to our cultural arts skills, knowledge, and purposes. At the NCAP we have witnessed the transition of young Navajo artists from mere inquiring minds to culturally and technically fluent cultural artists. We have experienced, as staff, the possibilities that this knowledge holds for both the students and the teachers. That proof, for us, is more than enough cause to continue our outreach programs - exposing the cultural teachings that come from the loom as more than pretty picture material - but rather, as a way of life that is at times harsh but rewarding in more ways than we can empirically record.
Ultimately, why would there be allowances for presenting false visual stories to the world when we have specialized artists and people who dedicate their studies and their lives to these arts who could be spot lighted - showing the world real stories of survival, resistance, and survivance? There is no need to “play Navajo” for the purpose of an image. We do not have to fit the Edward Curtis mold of what a Navajo individual should be posed as. As Navajo people, our visual stories are so diverse. However, for those who maintain, perpetuate, and celebrate our cultural arts, while they connect to our greater history and future of who we are as Navajo people - please let their stories be their stories. Our looms, our weavings, and our cultural artists have voices, lives, and agency. Let’s not take that away from them for the sake of “likes” or ❤️'s to be hoarded on social media networks. If we are looking to capture an image of a weaver – let the person in the photo be a weaver. Let the work in the background reflect their work. Let’s take the time to talk with, learn with, and highlight our cultural artists - showcase their work, promote their small businesses, and celebrate them.
Yes, we must build rapport and establish relationships with our cultural artists.
Yes, we need to help to protect our cultural artists by becoming more self-aware.
Yes, this will take time.
In the end, the time it will take to create this connection is in no way comparable to the quantity and quality of time, effort, and sacrifice that these artists have put into learning their work. We want to do more than just listen to their stories - we want to hear them. Through visual sovereignty, we as Navajo people, can help people hear those stories by way of images - so let's stop playing Navajo.
With that, I return to that day when my dad was taking my photo in front of my Nali’s loom. It is both similar and distinct from the sashbelt loom incident. Similar in that photos taken from these scenes would reveal false stories of who the weaver was/is. Distinct because at the end of my dad's photo session, my grandmother sat next to me. I remember that she took my hand with the comb still in it and guided it with sound. In that moment - it was as if she opened a window for me, teaching me how to find my own identity and my own healing (check out our Cultural Arts Holistic Well-Being Series). As I grew up, with some luck, some family support, some amazing teachings from weavers like Ilene Naegle, Roy Kady, Jeannie Jones, Jonah Yazzie, and TahNibaa Naataanii and a lot of honest time in front of my own looms, I found out what a loom can do for me holistically. My loom, that I must admit needs a bit of dusting off as of recent, saved me in many ways. Weaving inspired me to start speaking the Navajo language and helped me to deal with depression, insomnia and years away from the reservation. And although I have accrued just a shadow of my nálí’s skills in weaving, she still inspires me everyday that I pass her weaving that is hung in the center of our home. I would never want anyone to sit in front of her loom again and claim credit for her inspiration.