We left Farmington this morning for Chinle, where we would take photos for the Johns Hopkins’ unit there. After driving back through the Red Valley to Chinle, we met with employees of the unit and Ed photographed a shoot for their motherhood-planning program. Soon afterwards, we returned to Canyon de Chelly, this time at its floor, to photograph a mother and newborn for the same program. We were then given the opportunity to read to elementary school students at the local elementary school. We stopped for lunch, and departed for another shoot, this time in the home of a Navajo family. The mother began to dress her two daughters in traditional Navajo outfits, and the two girls then made traditional food for us as well. We then travelled to the base of a local mesa to shoot them, where another family met us. After the sun set and the shoot ended, we went to a Pow Wow being held in a convention center in Chinle, and then drove 3.5 hours back to Albuquerque.
Canyon De Chelly, Part 2
I finally got to see the Canyon without being hindered by an upset stomach. But this time it was not from a top, looking down at the beautiful rock formations but rather on the ground looking up at the magnificent red wall of the Canyon. This time we weren’t going to just to see the sights but to do work. Ed was doing a photo shoot of a Navajo woman and her 5 month-old daughter. I know that I said the boys last night were the cutest things ever but, I don’t know, the kids mentioned in this post are also the cutest things I have ever seen. There is something about kids that make you feel something deep. Especially when the backdrop is the beautiful landscape of the Canyon De Chelly. To get to the photo set, we followed our host and leader of the JHU center in Chinle down under the rocks of the canyon. At first it was a little scary – we were taking a rental Chevy through a sand pit and into uncharted territory for us Easterners. When we got to the site (which in reality wasn’t very far but felt like miles), we were again struck by the majesty of the red rocks around us. It was especially beautiful with these two beautiful Navajo women standing in this natural landscape. Ultimately all of these photos show the reason that these people are so committed to their land. This land is incredibly important to these people and it’s obvious why. Even as a strange outsider, I could feel the spirituality from all around. This land is truly holy and it belongs to these people. Through these photos, I think we were all just trying to show the power in the land and in the people.
Following the shoot, we headed to a local elementary school where we were asked to read books to kids ranging from kindergarten to 6th grade. Again, we saw some really cute kids that would make anybody’s heart melt. The kids were clustered in groups up and down the hallway in grades. I started by reading with the leader from JHU to a bunch of first graders. We sat on two chairs and read to them from a book called Please, Baby, Please. The women from JHU had them read along and snap when they enjoyed something. Again, I was astonished at how well they accepted my presence as an outsider. It took them a bit to warm up to me, but once I started to make silly faces or act along with the story, they start giggling and playing along with me. These kids have totally different lives and tracks then the ones that I am surrounded with constantly, such as the Lower Schoolers at Westtown, but there is always a shared commonality in kids. No matter where you go, in what region, with whatever background, kids are always going to be easily amused by laughter and silliness.
Seeing these children on these trips was truly a blessing. Kids clearly have a way into my heart and it means so much that we were able to get these opportunities to meet with them one on one. The shared commonality in youth is a huge takeaway from this trip for me.
When we arrived at the house of the last photo shoot, the mom was outside in her yard with her dogs. She invited us inside and began to show Jane, Gwyneth, and me her daughters’ ts’aas (traditional wedding baskets), loom sticks, and Dine stirring sticks. As a former competitor of the Miss Navajo pageant, the mother was extremely knowledgeable of the customs and history of the Navajo people, which was apparent in her teaching of the items, food, and dress. After this explanation, she went and gathered her daughters (aged 10 and 11), who were already in their authentic tiered skirts, shirts, moccasins, and turquoise jewelry. As the mother tied up her daughters’ hair, she told us how Navajo aren’t supposed to cut their hair, as more hair denotes more knowledge. When women tie up their hair, it gathers the knowledge and brings it closer to their minds. Next, she tied a weaved sash belt around each of their waists, while describing the belts’ purposes in labor, weddings, and combating physical ailments. A Navajo concho belt overlaid the sash – each silver belt made by the daughters’ relatives. The whole family went into the kitchen, and began to make blue corn pancakes for us. During this whole time, Ed was photographing the family and their preparations. We ate the food (delicious!), and then ventured off towards the mesa. A family from Hopkins went with us to be photographed as well, with a newborn daughter and a 2 year-old son. Seeing the kids play in the sand, 10 feet away from a herd of unfenced cows at the base of an enormous mesa, was an incredible cultural shock. There is nowhere close to our homes that housed such expanses of undeveloped land, especially with such majestic physical structures as the mesa. The girls started posing on rocks with the traditional baskets, stirring sticks, and blankets, looking as if out of a historical photograph. Each daughter exerted such power, confidence, and pride in their culture. The matriarchy at this shoot, as well as on the trip in totality, exemplified the strength of Native women, and their power in familial structures. At one point, the mother of the daughters saw their hair was becoming undone, kicked off her heels, and climbed onto the rock to redo her updo. This mix of modern mother and authentic Navajo culture was perhaps the most impactful imagery of the day. After photographing the daughters, Ed then shot the other family with the toddlers. Dressed in traditional clothing as well, the little boy captured all of our attention with his adorable and strong personality. Both families, with the toddlers and preteen daughters, were showing the strength and pride of Navajo people, out in the desert with the sun setting behind them. This is the Navajo that we should all see. The insensitivity that native people are faced with by outsiders completely shuns this aspect of beauty in the modern Native narrative.
The connection with the Dine (or Navajo) culture held by each member of the family exemplified the pride held by so many Native people in their history. At first, it felt uncomfortable to photograph the daughters in their traditional dress, as it felt like exoticizing Native people and their way of life. After some conversations, though, I began to understand that respecting and recognizing the beauty of a culture is not the same as exoticizing and appropriating it. The ability of these families, as well as all others on the trip, to share their culture and history with us with such eagerness and trust after so much pain has been inflicted upon them by white people, is incomprehensible and yet incredibly touching. The strength of the Native people, after so many years of oppression and relocating, is impossible to capture in words. This matriarchal and prideful shoot proved to be the most impactful of the day, and will remain with me for years to come.
To conclude our day, we were fortunate enough to be able to attend a Pow Wow held in Chinle before departing on the long drive to Albuquerque. If I’m being honest, even after several days immersed in actual life on the reservation, my expectations heading into this event were distorted by popular perceptions of Native Americans. For instance, I was surprised when we pulled up to a high school rather than a more traditional building or outdoor space. Outside, there were several vendors selling a combination of traditional Navajo dishes and fast food items. Admission cost $8 per person. Inside, we were greeted by a large, amphitheater style space, filled with the sound of drums, bells, and chanting in Navajo. We found seats relatively close to the open space where the dancers were performing. Of course, we stuck out a bit as some of the few white people there, but everyone around us was more occupied with preparing to perform and talking to each other to pay us any attention. All around us, people were dressed in intricate traditional regalia – huge eagle feather headdresses and bustles, jingle dresses, beaded belts and breastplates, moccasins, and braids accessorized with beaded amulets and long stips of fur. When we noticed the numbers attached to their clothing, we realized that the Pow Wow was competitive, with prizes being awarded to the best performers. At the center of the amphitheater, several groups of men sat in circles around large drums, hitting them in a synchronized rhythm and singing in the Navajo language. Further inward, men of all ages marched to the beat of the drum, adding to the music with shakers and bells. Along the side, women wearing traditional shaws swayed to the music. The long dances were separated by periods of intermission during which an announcer talked about the significance of the songs being performed and the importance of celebrating Native culture. At one point, someone put down a cloth in the center of the performance area and people came up and placed money on it. I wasn’t sure what it was for, but it was clearly something important to the community. Interestingly, it wasn’t just Navajos in attendance, but people who traveled from other tribes as well. In this regard, the Pow Wow served as a place for Native people to come together and transcend tribal divisions in order to celebrate their shared experiences and cultural traditions. Overall, I felt honored to watch the beauty of the performance and the pride the people in attendance feel for their heritage. I was especially stuck by the enduring strength of their spirit in spite of the continuous attempts by outsiders to diminish it.
Unfortunately, we had to leave a bit early in order to make it to Albuquerque at a reasonable time. As we walked to our car after getting Navajo tacos from one of the vendors, a woman thanked us for coming. Although it was a small gesture, it contained a very touching message – that she appreciated us being there to honor and celebrate Native culture. Like many other small interactions we have had during this trip, this speaks to the tremendous generosity and open heartedness of the Native American people. In spite of all the hardship and injustice inflicted on them by white people, they continue to give us the benefit of the doubt and welcome us onto their land and home.