Navajo Voices

By: Monty Roessel

Originally Published in 1995

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I decided to become a photographer because I was tired of outsiders stepping into my community for a few days and supposedly telling “our” story. There is a book recently published that shows a pic­ture of a Navajo woman sitting in an empty hogan. Her baby is wrapped in a cradle board laid across her lap. There was nothing else in the hogan. The photographer was trying to show the geometric beauty of the hogan, yet when I showed this scene to some Bavajo friends they all felt pity for her.

Why? Because they saw poverty in the empty hogan. The photographer had a nice picture. But it was the wrong psalm.

Fred Ritchin, a photo critic, wrote one reason pho­tographers seek the exotic is because there is no poetry in the industrial world.

The Navajo world is full of poetry—and a strong draw for photographers hoping for rhyme. But the verses cannot be learned in a weekend; photographers who drop in for a short time miss most of the subtleties. There is much to learn about the Navajo from looking at photographs taken by non-Navajos, there is also much that should be taught.

Take Indian humor for instance. I remember talking with a Navajo woman who joked that white people must think we have no teeth because we never smile in pictures. Humor is probably the most under photographed aspect of being Navajo.

Yet, what other people celebrate a baby’s first laugh. From the very first word that is spoken by a Bavajo, a baby is taught to appreciate and cherish the sound of laughter. This gentle giggle results in a Bavajo being given their spiritual name that connects them to Mother Earth and the Holy People. I have always felt that Navajo laughter closely resembles the rhythms of Navajo prayers and songs.

Bavajo culture is alive. Only a dead culture doesn’t change and thus, Navajos are changing daily. It is time Navajos begin to tell their own story. We have a voice. It is an eloquent voice filled with poetry and song.

It is not an Indian voice but a Bavajo voice. Rather than look for similarities we must emphasize our differ­ences. “Pan-Indian” should be a four letter word. What do I mean by this? Take powwows for instance. It allows Navajos to dress up like Indians. Some young Navajos are growing up believing that a powwow is Navajo reli­gion. We are in jeopardy of trading our Navajo voice for an Indian voice. I remember a college photography stu­dent showing me a portfolio of powwow pictures. When I asked him what I was looking at he said, “I want to show traditional Navajo dancing.” Powwow is not Navajo.

Humor is probably the most under photographed aspect of being Navajo.

There are many answers to be found in Navajo cul­ture. My mother teases me that “racing the sun” as a young boy conditioned me for my photography. “While you can no longer run to race the sun, your race now is to capture its beauty on film before it vanishes.”

I have been working on a very personal photography project since the birth of my daughter—eleven years now. It is a project that has followed my mother, Ruth, teaching my daughter, Jaclyn, the ways of the Navajo.

I remember when she was teaching my daughter about weaving. One morning, Jaclyn and her Nali’ (Father’s mother) left early to gather plants to dye some wool. As they walked across the darkened landscape, Jaclyn stumbled over a small bush. “Nali’ Ruth,” Jaclyn said. “Why do we always do things while it is still dark?” Her Nali’ just laughed and said, “The Holy People taught us that there is wisdom and beauty in the darkness before dawn. If you sleep in, you miss it.”

For the next two hours they shared the beauty that the earth had to offer. As I watched the two of them walk across the wide open land and climb a small painted hill, the sun rose behind them and Jaclyn asked her Bali’ why Navajos weave. My mind drifted to a time 26 years earlier when our family lived in Phoenix and I asked my mom why she was singing as she weaved. The smile, warm and filled with love and knowledge, was the same one she gave my daughter as she answered the same question more than two decades later. “This is who we are, this is what we do,” she said. “The loom connects me with the sacred mountains and the songs connect me with my mother.”

My mother and daughter spent the next week going over the various steps involved in weaving, from carding the wool to stringing the loom. But the real lessons were the stories of The People. “Being Bavajo means not only knowing how to weave but also, why we weave,” my mom had said.

By the end of the week, my daughter had a dazed look on her face. There were so many stories, so many tasks to remember. She tried to memorize everything that her Nali’ had told her but it was impossible. Her mind was like a poorly woven rug, there was no order to it. She came to me and said, “There’s no way I can remember all of this, Dad.” My mom must have sensed this because she walked over to Jaclyn and told her, “Don’t worry about remembering everything. It is inside you now. You will remember what to do when you have to.” “The loom connects me with the sacred mountains and the songs connect me with my mother.”

That is the way of Navajo teaching. It is inside us. When it is time to learn, it is time to teach. A few weeks later my mom visited to see how Jaclyn’s weaving was coming.

When she walked into Jaclyn’s room she saw the weaving tools lying all over her room. She sat next to Jaclyn and asked why she wasn’t taking care of her tools. Jaclyn felt like she had let her Kali’ down. Bali’ Ruth put her arms around her and said, “Let me tell you a story.”

It was now time to learn and time to teach.

“One day a young lady came to Changing Woman and said she wanted to weave. Changing Woman taught her just like I have taught you. After spending days and days before the loom, there was no progress on the rug. She didn’t understand why nothing was happening. Finally, on the fourth day she got so mad she tore the loom down and threw all of her weaving tools away.

“Four days later, she thought she heard a baby cry­ing. She came to the spot where she thought the crying came from and she looked closely at the ground. In front of her, underneath a sagebrush, was her weaving comb. The weaving tools were crying.

“The comb looked at the woman and told her, ‘I am crying because you threw me away. You didn’t appreciate me and the other tools, that is why your rug never grew while you were weaving.’

“The young woman felt guilty. She had betrayed not only her tools but her People. Remember this story when you are weaving. Always take care of your tools and they will take care of you.”

After the story they made a buckskin bag for the tools. When I left Jaclyn’s room, they were both sitting in front of a small loom and they were both singing.

“I weave in harmany. With the Earth I weave. The strings are like rain, the rain tauches my fingers. There is beauty in my rug. There is beauty all around me. The plants speak to me, Mother Earth colors my rug. I weave in harmony.”

This is the beauty of the Navajo voice. A story comes alive with each telling and retelling. It is also why Navajo storytelling is so important. There is a complex­ity to the stories that works on different levels for differ­ent age groups. The story’s aim is to teach the whole person.

The Bavajo have a word for human beings, it is BilaAshlaaii—it means the five finger people. The beauty of its meaning lies in its simplicity and yet there is also a deeper meaning. Like the word suggests, there are many facts to being human: culture, humor, language, religion, as well as others. Being Bavajo is more than just putting on a turquoise necklace or weaving a rug. In order to truly understand who you are, you must teach all five fingers—the whole person. This is the challenge for Bavajos, to be able to tell their own stories with their own voice.

Photography has allowed me and my family to learn more about being Navajo. A friend of my daughter recently asked her why she wanted to weave. Jaclyn’s smile mirrored my mother’s for its warmth and beauty, and in her own voice said, “that is what we do, that is who we are.”

Cite This Article

Roessel, Monty. "Navajo Voices." Expedition Magazine 37, no. 1 (March, 1995): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/navajo-voices/


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