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. 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 room with no one to claim ownership and an available Navajo person to pose although they were foreign to the sashbelt loom and had no knowledge of that style of weaving. The loom was positioned incorrectly and hands that were not the artist worked the loom, moving 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.
Thinking about the event and the many others that I have seen on social media, television, and magazines, I felt that there was a need for public discussion about why it is wrong to pose for photos, pretending to be an artist of an art piece 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) stand in front of a painting, sculpture or other fine art with such confidence to pose for a photo suggesting that that artwork 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”. For whatever the intention, rationalization or excuse, scenarios such as these are not only demonstrations of a lack of respect for our 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 know how to do. We self imposed what people like Edward Curtis have 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 was are still Navajo? Or worse yet, we just want a pretty picture? In any scenario the larger issue of respect, or lack thereof, gloom over this incident and those like it. Lack of respect for and responsibility to 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.
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. This is more than playing the Navajo model or a census number or "coming home" to vote during elections - it 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 during graduate school. 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.
Sheryl Lynn Benally
Program Assistant, Navajo Cultural Arts Program
So ... Christine walked into my office at the end of March and said "Guess what, Sheryl? You have seen me do it, it's time for you to do it! You are going to organize and run the Summer Workshop Series this year. Here is the summer scope - A Collaborative Weekend Summer Workshop Series with the Office of Miss Navajo Nation. Miss Navajo 2017-18 Crystal Littleben will be in attendance and we would help to promote holistic well-being through the cultural arts." I knew it was going to take some coordination but I was more than thrilled and excited to start right away.
First things first. I worked with Crystal and Christine to make sure we addressed their ideas. Crystal wanted five (5) workshops in each agency on the Navajo Nation; Eastern Agency (Crownpoint), Fort Defiance Agency (Window Rock), Chinle Agency (Tsaile), Western Agency (Tuba City) and Shiprock Agency (Shiprock). And Christine wanted to tie this series into the Diné College’s 50th Anniversary. - No problem - Diné College has branches in all agencies and so we worked out the locations with the site directors - Thank you, site directors, for opening up on the weekends!
Deciding upon workshop topics and searching for the workshop leaders were the most challenging. We needed to find dedicated artisans who were:
(1) from a variety of emphasis areas;
(2) willing to show and teach community members;
(3) located within specific agencies; and
(4) available the same days Crystal was able to attend.
Talk about moving parts! Slowly but surely it was all coming together. When we released the final flyer for the Workshop Series with the help of Coyote Pass Designs, we immediately got phone calls, emails, facebook messages, visitors to our office (and even houses!) to sign up. We literally had a waitlist up to twenty-two participants for the sash belt-making workshop and 19 for the skirt making. Although the phone calls, voicemails and emails were intense in quantity, it was exciting to know that our community was interested in our cultural arts programming.
Once we filled the workshops - it was prep time. I was off to find materials. I remember when I received the list for the Pow-wow Chest Plate making workshop I thought: “What is this?” “How will this look?” "What if I get the wrong beads." The NCAP had never done this type of workshop before. Thank goodness the workshop leader met me at City Electric and gave me the “101” on materials, how they are used, and what options exist. It was nice to have workshop leaders take the time out of their busy schedules and help with preparation like that.
Can I take a moment to gush about these workshop leaders? They are all so talented and passionate individuals on the cultural values they all shared. Hearing the cultural stories on each workshop emphasis, seeing the amount of material they need to get one project done, the hard labor that goes into it, the time it takes was a revelation and for that, they really do deserve recognition for the beautiful work they create. So, thank you, Troy, Wilfred, Jonah, Keonnie - oh yeah - and Crystal, who led the silversmithing workshop.
And of course this wouldn't have been possible without our community members. Our 26 workshop participants represented all 5 of our agencies and ranged in age from 18 - 65. Some had experience with some cultural arts and for others it was their first time. Many participants shared that their grandparents or parents had the cultural arts knowledge but they wanted to learn and carry on those traditions. I was inspired by how passionate they all were and every participant did an incredible job finishing their projects. They left each workshop happy and excited to show what they created. Calling each other by clan relations like “brother,” “sister,” and “mom”, many of them exchanged numbers to keep in contact. It was a cool bond to see - a bond that I had a small part in creating.
My personal favorite was the Silversmithing Workshop because my late Nali Dennis Yazzie was a silversmither. Since I started with NCAP, I have been given the amazing opportunity to learn how to silversmith. Now, that I have a taste for what it feels like with fire in my hand and beauty as the end result, I will continue learning. I want to keep that silversmithing emphasis alive in my family. We truly did “go all out” during that workshop, because we produced more than just bracelets! We got creative and made bracelets, pendants, rings and earrings. At one point, our participants did not want to leave the silversmithing building because they wanted to learn more.
It was truly an honor working with Crystal again and the turn out was great! After each workshop, we were thrilled to get positive feedback and it was a great feeling seeing the participants leave with cultural knowledge about the workshop. This summer workshop series is definitely for the books!
Miss Navajo 2017-2018, Office of Miss Navajo Nation
workshop as well! My moccasins were an inch too long due to wear and tear (probably from the rainy and muddy days) and the wrappings were hanging by a tread! With help from former NCAPer and awesome workshop leader, Sam, the repair (surgery) was successful! I cut half an inch off the sole and restitched the back half. The stitching naturally came back to me and it was like I never stopped making moccasins. This experience helped to jump start my critical thinking about the holistic components of moccasin making - so that's what I have for you today!
crucial so that your moccasins seems don't have scalloped, wavy edges. This spacing is created through your diligent perception. So take time to rest your eyes. It pays of in the end. Your posture is also something that you have to pay attention to. Much like weaving, if your posture is poor, that laziness reflects in your work and back pain. Now mind you, this is just with the assemblage process. If you hunt, butcher and tan for your own buckskin - that's going to add a whole list of other physical demands as well.
Sam Slater also explained this connection between identity and moccasin making rather pointedly after the UNM workshop: "My identity as an individual is so tied to this art, it was such a humbling experience to teach it once again. Over four days of sharing and living moccasin stories, I know each of these participants all have their own moccasin story to tell, a story they stitched themselves". In short, as my yáázh Wilson Aronilth says, if you do not know who you are, you can never truly be happy. Knowing you are a moccasin maker for cultural artisans like Sam brings happiness and grounding in our Diné cultural identity.
of critical consciousness for your students, but often feel you’re missing the tools. These sacred shoes of survival are those tools. That’s all I have to say now, that these kélchí and their beautiful makers are such powerful tools for our people. I’m grateful for all they continue to teach me." In my opinion - becoming a moccasin maker is like getting your Ph.D. is Critical Theory and Application.
those who are no longer with us. It is in this way that moccasin making comfortably connects Sam and I. My aunt was known for making moccasins with a unique double stitch. Sam found out about this stitch from his NCAC Moccasin Instructor, Harry Walters, and started to experiment on his own. The double stitch calms the scallops of the sole and as Sam worked on mastering this stitch, in a way he smoothed my soul, pushing memories of my bizhi to the forefront. It must be a Round Rock thing!
Thank you to NAS UNM and Sam for inviting me! Keep up the great work! And to our blog readers - if you want to give moccasin making a try - NCAP is hosting a mini moc workshop hosted by Aaron Begay, along with other cultural arts emphasis workshops during the 2018 Navajo Cultural Arts Week. Contact Christine or Sheryl to reserve your spot - They fill up quickly.
Next week's blog is by Johnnie on the holistic components of weaving --- so stay tuned!!
Grant Manager, Navajo Cultural Arts Program
Currently, I am working along side Crystal from Office of Miss Navajo Nation and Johnnie from the Diné College Psychology Program on this unique Navajo Cultural Arts Holistic Well-Being Blog Series. While Crystal and Johnnie are focusing on specific emphasis areas and their relationship to the cultural arts, I'll be posting on NCAP's perspectives of holistic well-being as well as ways for artisans to self reflect on how they can utilize a holistic approach in their own work. This week I'll be looking at our NCAP Logo and how it dialogues with Crystal's platform and Johnnie's research.
The NCAP logo was collaboratively created by graphic artist, Corey Begay, and the NCAP staff. We contacted Corey because of his work with Salina Bookshelf, Inc. and the reputation he created through his mural projects in Flagstaff. We were in search of a logo that embodied our mission - to enhance and revitalize traditional Navajo cultural arts practices while promoting intergenerational teachings. We wanted something recognizable that also emphasized the cultural arts specializations offered in our Certificate Program: weaving, silversmithing, moccasin making, and basketry. Corey was up for the challenge and sent us a few sketches. We selected one of his ideas that interwove elements of beauty and protection. His ideas meshed so well with our own that we could see the potential of the Program through his sketches. From that draft, Corey consulted Diné individuals and the NCAP staff brought in suggestions from the Center of Diné Studies' faculty members. This is what was created!
Within the elements of the logo exists a ring of colors. These colors are not meant as a kitschy approach to culture nor is it a Panindian understanding of wellness. They are Diné philosophies encapsulated within our sacred stones - yoolgai, dootl'izhii, diichilí, dóó bááshzhinii. The NCAP understands them as the ontological (yoolgai - white shell), epistemological (dootl'izhii - turquoise), methodological (diichilí - abolone shell), and ethical (bááshzhinii - black jet) approaches to surviving this world in a balanced manner. These stones are at the base of the Diné holistic well-being framework presented by Crystal. When we work with these stones, we pull to us the physical health, emotional health, mental health, and spiritual health from which they stem. And when we work on our holistic well-being, we call upon these stones for guidance. This is how the relationship between the stones and well-being are reciprocal.
If you enjoyed this quick read today or for more information about the cultural arts and Diné holistic well-being, don't forget to.....
-Visit Miss Navajo Nation's website and her next 5K run in Tuba City
-Check-in with the NCAP blog - Next week's blog is on silversmithing!
-Apply for the 2018/2019 Navajo Cultural Arts Certificate Program :)
A posting by Crystal Littleben, NCAP Project Coordinator
You are probably wondering, what is this Littleben you speak of? Well, my name is Crystal Littleben and I am the Project Coordinator for the amazing Navajo Cultural Arts Program (NCAP). While I call two places home, Round Rock and Tuba City, Arizona, I am quickly starting to feel at home with NCAP here in Tsaile as well.
I am of the Red House (Kin Łichíi’nii) clan,
born for the Coyote Pass (Ma’ii Deeshgiizhnii) clan.
My maternal grandfather’s clan is the Bitter Water (Bįįh Bitoo’nii).
My paternal grandfather’s clan is the Under His Cover (Bit’ahnii).
It is mindboggling (in a good way!) to reflect on the little time I have been with NCAP and the amount of growth I gained both professionally and personally!
Growing up, I have always been naturally drawn to my Navajo language, culture, and arts. I am and will always be a lifelong learning of our Navajo language and culture… so, being offered the job as the Project Coordinator for NCAP was a great way to continue my journey of Sa’ah Naagáí Bik’éh Hózhóón.
Amongst the responsibilities of a Project Coordinator, I had the opportunity to be a part of a Weekend Silversmith Workshop led by Mrs. Martha Jackson. I had only been on the job for two weeks but I was ready for some hands on experience.
I have never tried my hand at any sort of silversmithing work. So, when Mrs. Jackson invited me to participate with the workshop, I was completely caught off guard. I had no idea what I was doing, didn’t know the “silversmith” language, and definitely, didn’t know how to use the tools. But if you know me, inexperience won’t stop me!
I have tons of NCAP stories to share with you and I hope you all continue to read our blog. So stay tuned! Follow us on our Website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
A posting by Christine M. Ami, Grant Manager
Call me sentimental but I want to make an old school mixtape – you know … where you wait by the radio with a blank cassette tape loaded, hoping that the radio DJ plays your favorite songs and praying that your finger reflexes can hit the record button before too much of the song’s intro is cut off. On my mixtape I want Adele’s “Send My Love”, Jennie Rivera’s “La Chacalosa”, Justin Timerlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”, and Diisigner’s “Panda” to play, so that I may make a gift, a mixtape, for our 2016 Emerging Artisans who just completed their Navajo Cultural Arts Certificate Program. Each song has a unique reference to one of these Emerging Artisans and together - I think this mixtape might just serve as the NCAP soundtrack for this year!
But first, let’s rewind to December 2015…..
The Center for Diné Studies (CDS) had the framework for a potentially amazing Navajo Cultural Arts Certificate Program – the curriculum was set, syllabi were drafted, instructors had been selected, and I had recently stepped up as the NCAP grant manager.
And then in January 2016 this happened…..
Ilene Naegle walked into my office
Delia Wauneka picked up an advertisement
Dawayne Bahe called me on my cell phone
Carlon Ami sat down at the registration table
These four students stepped up to test this budding program’s mission statement:
“To enhance and revitalize traditional Navajo cultural arts practices while providing opportunities for Navajo cultural arts knowledge holders and master artisans to share their unique skills in a multigenerational setting.”
In the end – the students’ exit surveys speak for themselves.......
“This has been the most developmental period during my career as a silversmith. I am extremely grateful for this program and the opportunities/knowledge it has provided me. Thank You, a resounding thank you to the NCAP!”
"I am so glad and happy I took the certificate program. I am artistically and culturally more award of Native American and Navajo cultural arts."
"My fellow cohort group were the best group to have experience the time with throughout each semester. We have grown close and I feel like I have related to them as family now."
"This program was so great and I am happy to be part of it. I have big hop that this program will excel with every cohort."