Recaping Indigenous Visionaries: The Burden and Blessing of Cultural Preservation as a Navajo Weaver
Navajo Cultural Arts Certificate Student, American Indian College Fund Indigenous Visionaries Fellow
The feeling I have towards weaving is so intricate that takes me back to the precious times I had with my grandmother, Bessie Hatathlie. She was a master weaver who wove beautiful tapestries that she sold, traded, and donated to various people and institutions.
Growing up I sat by my grandmother’s loom as she wove. I watched her card and spin wool for hours or until someone told me to do my chores. I was partially raised by my grandparents and I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with them. Their friends became my friends and sometimes they would all come to my grandma's house to dye wool in metal barrels over open fires that were spread all over the yard. I remember seeing the herbs in glass jars and the fires being built. Everyone brought their spun-undyed wool and they worked together to combine the herbs, water, and alum and began the process of dying wool. I was about 4 years old, too young to do much but watch.
In my adulthood, I had a job that consumed much of my time. Many people my age lived in a constant cycle of work, go home, sleep, and go to work again. In my mid-thirties I wanted out because I wanted to explore life beyond the status quo. I wanted a challenge.
Ironically, I found it by returning to my cultural roots and attending Diné College Navajo Cultural Arts Program while living in the city. As a student, I was introduced to many teachers like Tahnibaa Naataanii, Christine Ami, Sara Naataanii and Brenda Joshevama. All these women have taught me more about weaving, Diné culture and leadership then I could on my own. They have nurtured my leadership knowledge with their insight and reconnected me with my culture.
I also had the opportunity to run my own workshop on wool processing during the 2021 Navajo Cultural Arts Week! And I did it virtually so that anyone who could and wanted to check out the process could stop in and learn. I did that!
Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie is a 2002 graduate from the University of California, Irvine, where she pursued a Master’s Degree in Studio Arts. Tsinhnahjinnie is also a photographer, curator, Professor in Native American Studies at University of California, Davis, and currently the Director of the CN Gorman Museum. Tsinhnahjinnie is Seminole-Muskagee-Navajo, Through our clanship we have no relation, but through K’é I will address her as shinálí (my paternal grandmother). She was born into the Bear and Raccoon Clans of the Seminole and Muskagee Nations, and born for the Tsinajinnie clan of the Navajo Nation. Tsinhnahjinnie has a passion for Native American Arts and re-appropriating 19th century old photos of Native subjects and by her methods she changes the perspective of what the original photos were meant for. She uses the fusion of photography and contemporary digital art to challenge or change Native stereotypes, defy political concepts, and through her work she pioneered expanding the creativity of Natives to fully express their ideas and thoughts in an open and safe creative space. Tsinhnahjinnie is also a apart of the LGBTQ+ community and me also being a part of that community instantly I felt that bond through her interview and so, I thought – why not have her be a part of my blog and write about her thoughts on Indigenous art, identity and language!
I chose to select Hulleah because through her interview she allowed me to look at Native arts and look beyond the image and analyze the image and flip the perspective and take control of the visuals. As a photographer, she saw the power of images through photography, the power of possible change for the better. I also chose to write about Hulleah because she mentioned that she identifies as two-spirit, I too, identify as two-spirit and some of her work is inspired from how she identifies as a two-spirit Native woman. Tsinhnahjinnie archive ranges from the San Francisco Native American gay communities to the protests at Alcatraz, she says “I didn’t not realize I was making and expanding my archive.” Her main focus was to document events of different Indigenous communities to continue telling their stories through images of people doing incredible things.
Her Indigenous identity impacted her art by her telling the story of We’Wha, The Beloved. She explained that “We’Wha lived her life as a woman, born as man and buried as man. But during her time here on the earth she was a woman. She was an “in-between”, that she was able to go out to the outside world and brought back what she considered to be beneficial to her tribe, and teach tribal members.” We’Wha was always involved with her community, helped with ceremonies, and she was highly respected within her Zuni community from 1860-1898. Tsinhnahninnie says that “We’Wha was two-spirit and when I needed inspiration, I look at this image” (We’Wha: The Beloved). In addition, her Indigenous identity impacted her art by literally being born into the world of arts because her father was a painter and photographer. Her father was a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts and his classmates used to come to their house on a Saturday to paint and tell stories as she listened to their stories.
Tsinhnahjinnie herself attended Rough Rock Community School as a child, at that time Rough Rock Community School was the one of first schools to add Navajo Language to their curriculum and her father was the person to illustrate the Navajo textbooks, and a team of Native artists, educators, and community members created a system to take control of their image to teach Navajo culture and language to children that builds stronger Indigenous communities for future generations. You know when politicians, well-known photographers, visitors from First Nation in Canada, and visitors from around the world wanting to observe how the first bi-lingual school was doing is only a sign of building a stronger community. She also stated that “having years of archives of photographs from all her travels and being in the Bay area, sometimes people would come up to her and ask her if she might have a picture of their grandparents during the years they were in school or at events.” She said she usually would have the pictures that were requested and that in itself helps build a stronger community for Indigenous nations.
Hulleah left me with a stronger insight for how I observe the arts and how within my identity as an Indigenous person, I can have control of my image and my perception of that image. Also, her manipulation of photographs has the ability to re-interpret the colonial message and to send a message of our own to flip the perspective is such a creative but factualistic approach is innovative and it opened up my creativity and mind to take control of my image through visual sovereignty. Hulleah is such an inspiration to me and after her interview I felt the passion she had for her work and I will always carry with me what she said about controlling one’s image “nobody ever wants to be imaged as a loser, nobody wants to be imaged as defeated, and nobody wants to be imaged as less than. So, taking control of that means a lot and that’s a step taking control of one’s image.”
Teddy is from Del Muerto, which is in between Tsaile and Chinle, Arizona and is a place that is close to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. I knew of his late father Teddy Draper, Sr. as an elder who spoke about his experiences as a Code Talker and who was a close friend of my parents. When my father passed away, my youngest son Sam told Teddy that we had found a pastel painting by him. Teddy told Sam, "Dr. Roessel always had good taste." His humor and low key confidence is exemplified in that statement and what was so appealing about his NCAP interview. Teddy was Sam's mentor in NCAP. Sam had the extraordinary experience and opportunity to work in Teddy's studio learning the art of inlay, grinding and setting stones, and everything that it entails to produce a finished piece. Sam relayed stories of what Teddy taught him and I was interested to hear more from a person who had such a positive impact on my son.
If the question was posed directly to Teddy of how his Navajo identity impacts his art, I think he would say "what?" All who he is, is intertwined in his upbringing as a Navajo person and to have someone ask that outright may not get the response you want. How do you separate out your identity? Yet, his art answers the question because what he produces in his paintings are Navajo scenes of hogans, fields, landscape, and the canyons that are in his backyard. He stated that he knew he must have some skill as a painter when his instructor at Ganado Mission School asked him to paint for an art contest. He was not happy about it but did it anyway. Later that summer a package came that had his original drawing and a check. He had won the art contest. He said that was his first realization that he could make money, which motivated him to attend the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Illinois. There he said he had tremendous instructors and was in school with other American Indian classmates that influenced his work. In all, he got positive reinforcement from other American Indians, even Alan Houser who taught at Intermountain Indian School where his father taught too and where Teddy was in high school.
The recollections of Teddy left me with the impression that artists form a community and bond closely with each other. So when you talk about communities you are speaking of how to lift yourself up and by doing so you are helping others either by example, by giving advice of how to succeed and/or being there for emotional, spiritual support. All that exemplifies Teddy and his connection to help and mentor others. If you strengthen individuals, then collectively those stronger persons create a more cohesive and improved community. People need to make a living to be productive members of their communities and Teddy spoke of the practical realities of being an artist and having to put food on the table. He is a business man and manages his art through De Chelly Art, LLC. He instructed his audience to take care of their money, invest it, do not go overboard and and do not spend in excess or you will be left with nothing. He quoted his grandfather who told him, "A rich man always dresses poor. A poor man dresses well but has no money."
What I enjoyed about Teddy's interview was his lived reality of how he got to where he is and how he has learned from it. He remembered friends who were so talented in art yet never technically trained such as his close friend Robert Draper who developed the pastel technique that Teddy uses. There is a discipline that Teddy said he learned from RC Gorman, who told him to commit yourself to 15 minutes a day doing your art. And, even when you produce a painting, you must sell it and in the beginning the additional expenses and obstacles are life changing experiences, Teddy noted. What he emphasized is you must work hard, be aggressive, control your temper, keep track of your money and do art for your soul. "There is no competition in art. It is with yourself. Confront yourself to be better."
Dr. Ami asked Teddy to speak of a lifestyle issue that affects artists and that is the abuse of alcohol and drugs. Teddy was candid and compelling in his description of his low point that landed him in rehab. He felt the Holy People got him through the roughest part. It was also his art that helped him begin his journey back as he started selling for bits of income. His grandfather counseled him that going to Alcoholics Anonymous only reinforced an identity as an alcoholic. His grandfather prayed with him and said to thank the alcohol. In his prayers, Teddy relayed he came to understand alcohol as his brother and he could not deny him because he would always be there. He saw a creek and on one side was Teddy and the other was alcohol. He said we can never cross the creek. You stay on your side and I will stay on my side. Since January 16, 1983, Teddy said he has never had an urge to drink. He helps others who seek his help.
Though art may be Teddy's profession, he finds satisfaction in how basketball coaching has become his life. It took him 20 years to find it and he enjoys working with young people and feels it has made him a "solid community member." In all the fun he has, Teddy's teams have won three national championships. I too can relate to his joy of basketball and being a coach. We may have a stereotype of an "Indian artist" and Teddy breaks any preconceived notions. When your goal is to make the world a better place and your philosophy is we must all learn to live together, then your view of the world is expansive and goes beyond the pastel colors in your hand, the silver piece you are creating. You transcend art and identity as labels. Teddy Draper, Jr. does just that and he finds joy in teaching. "All these things happen in life are not by chance." His words uplifted me and I knew why my son found in Teddy a person he could look up to and learn from, as an artist and as a person.
NAS111: Introduction to Native American Studies Student
"Art is essential to me," he said. "I need to sleep and think art at all times."
Individual artistic expression and cultural expression play off each other in his work. He is a Navajo painter, but he paints as himself. His art speaks for itself. Whitesinger’s Indigenous identity shows in his art. He presents himself in the context of his parents, teachers, and landscape. Many of his paintings depict his home communities of Chinle and Spider Rock. But, first and foremost, reveals himself as a human being.
"Art is part of the fabric of being human," Whitesinger said. "Art is like a ceremony. Art has a purpose."
That purpose, for Whitesinger, has to do with revealing and sharing yourself. For a practicing artist and a professor, the altruism of art and teaching are intertwined. Whitesinger abides by the Diné College paradigm of thinking, planning doing, and critiquing. Critiquing is an inherently communal activity, drawing people together and focusing them upon a single piece of art.
At first, Whitesinger found it challenging to incorporate Navajo concepts into his classroom curriculum. "What you should teach and what you shouldn't teach," he said, comes with a great deal of debate. As with ceremonies, there is an element of "what you see here stays here." The artist must walk a line. He must reveal only what is his to reveal; he must only tell his story.
In reference to one of his paintings of a Navajo deity, Whitesinger said, "Sometimes people see this, and they tell me I shouldn't do that. But it’s my own version of my existence here on the Navajo Nation, as far as myself and my dealing with certain things. When I paint, it makes me feel good about what I do and sometimes these images come out. So, I just work with it, and I stay with it. Sometimes people question my motives."
His motives appear to be heartfelt and personal – a giving of himself to other but also a personal joy in expression. He paints valleys, skies, warriors, ceremonial dancers, and sons, using lines and bold complimentary colors. Whether plein air oil on canvas or prints on flags or thrift store art, Whitesinger creates abstract art that vibrates and bounces with color and that simultaneously reveals a memetic and emotional truth.
"The use of lines and colors are essential to my artwork,” he said. "I try not to connect lines. When you connect them, it becomes a shape.”
Shapes reveal too much. They are too literal. Shapes do too much of the talking. They close themselves off, connecting themselves. Shapes answer too many questions. Unconnected lines reveal and allow the viewer to enter the artwork, to draw their own conclusion. Whitesinger speaks for himself, but he speaks from within the context of his community. He connect using unconnected lines. His colors dance, a ceremonial dance, revealing just enough to let us feel a “divine breeze.”
NCA197 Navajo Cultural Arts Practicum Student, Weaver
Our classes started off with a virtual SWAIA Scavenger Hunt. But the other activities we did in this class were also fun. I learned how to write my Artist statement and Artist biography and how to take photos of not only my weavings but also my paintings. And I liked that I got to learn new information that I never took the time to learn in high school - for example - I got to interview my grandma about her knowledge of weaving! There is so much to learn from our own families!
Also, I loved getting a chance to see my classmates' artwork. They really amazed me because we choose different topics, weaving, moccasin making, silversmithing. It was neat because I got to see different forms at art like when I got to the local flea market in Tuba City. And I missed the flea market during the pandemic!
NCA197 Navajo Cultural Arts Practicum Student, Weaver
Weaving is a significant part of my life and my identity. My weaving knowledge and skills were passed on to me through my maternal and paternal clans. As such, the pandemic made me think about the intergenerational wisdom and traditional knowledge I posses, and how do I contextualize this wisdom and knowledge for future generations. Thus, I reached out to Dine College as its mission is to help the well-being of the community.
In response to the pandemic, Dine College offered on-line classes, discounted tuition by 50%, waived certain fees, and offered other incentives to support students to keep cultural alive. With these incentives, I enrolled in the Navajo Cultural Arts Program. Less than a year into the program, I have discovered so much about myself. The courses helped me figure out what it means to be a Dine cultural artist and the cultural responsibilities that comes with it. The program provided insight into the art world—along with the critiques and criticisms. Moreover, I enhanced my weavings skills and learned new skills. Overall, the program helped to replenish my sole, connect me back to who I am and where I came from, and where I am to go from here.