Navajo Arts (Guest Post #14)

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This is #14 in a series of guest posts written by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read an introduction to these posts and the author HERE.

First of all, the following description and reflection on the Navajo arts is not professional as I do not have formal education in either arts or Navajo society. However, I cannot help but  talk about the Navajo arts since it is an significant aspect of Navajo society.

The Navajo art forms that I have seen include drawing, weaving, Jewelry, figurines in traditional costume, etc., although there must be far more than these in reality. In Lybrook Elementry/Middle School, I found a lot of beautiful drawings by students. One of the drawing themes is eagles. Although the meaning of the eagle in Navajo culture needs exploration, obviously it is an important component in Navajo culture.  Randy said that the students did better in arts than in other subjects. Responding to his comment, I said that it might be because other subjects such as math were more foreign to them than art which had been part of life from generation to generation.

In the Lybrook Community Ministries office building, there are some items showing Navajo weaving. One is a delicately made figurine representing a woman using a loom. Jill said it was made by a Navajo friend. There is a chart illustrating the sources of different dying color for cloths. These sources are from natural plants. It can be imagined that it is a complicated and demanding task to create a beautiful textile product. Navajo weaving is reminiscent of Eurasian nomads. It would be interesting to compare weaving, in the areas such as color and technique, of Navajo and Eurasian societies. This might provide some insights on the link between Navajo and Asian people.

Jewelry is another form of art products. As a Navajo student said, the beads were bought somewhere, and weaved into things like necklaces by Navajo households. I had the opportunity to see many kinds of necklaces that were made with stones in different colors. I was more interested in the symbolic meanings of each “theme” than what kind of stones they were made from. Although all the products are obviously talismans, the Navajo people who showed me the jewelry were not sure of exact symbolic meanings. Farmington, the largest town nearby, has stores to sell these folk products, as a Navajo student told me.

Another art form worth mentioning is the figurines in traditional costumes. I found them in Farmington Public Library, but I assume there are similar works of arts in the Lybrook community area. They appear to be religious or ceremonious figures as each of them seems to be responsible for a certain kind of performance. These figurines show that a feather has a significant symbolic meaning in Navajo culture.

Navajo art is colorful and delicate. It is probably not coincidental that Santa Fe and Taos became a well-known art center. Here in Lybrook I know a Navajo person who was previously an artist who sold paintings in Santa Fe galleries. But not all people can make a living by making art. Hopefully Navajo traditional arts can be preserved, and at the same time Navajo people can benefit from the development of tourism.

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Pinon Season

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It is pinon season here at Lybrook. We have a handful of these gnarled, scraggly trees on the property. Most years these trees are just like any other tree in the pine family—dropping occasional needles and growing a few small cones here or there. Every 3-7 years, however, these trees drop GOLD!

A steady stream of gold-miners (aka pinon-nut-gatherers) have visited our property in the past few weeks. The honorable ones knock on the door and ask if they can harvest nuts from the ground in front of our house. Others act more like commandos—everyone young and old piling out of a beat-up car, started to pick up nuts as fast as they can! We send most of these treasure-hunters on their way, saving the bounty for some of the local Navajo with whom we have on-going relationships.

We enjoy the rich taste of these nuts but have decided that we are entirely too lazy to bother harvesting this “gold.” The nuts are tiny, and are too easily camouflaged by the dirt and pebbles on the ground under the trees. To pick them up either puts a crick in one’s back or requires sprawling on the ground. And the sap, oh the sap…we have never experienced such drippy, sticky sap! I admit it smells wonderfully “pine-y” but it is next to impossible to remove from skin, clothing or hair.

oh the SAP…nasty sticky sap…

pinon nut camoflage

Some historians claim that pinon nut harvesting is what allowed native tribes to survive long, cold winters. The nuts are an almost perfect food for active hunters & gatherers with 13% protein, 60% fat, 20% carbohydrates. Today these tasty bits of richness are more often used as a snack.

Because pinon trees can’t really be farmed, and because the tiny nuts must be harvested by hand, the price is high for any nuts that are gathered. In this area of New Mexico, small bags can be found for sale each fall. They are sold at the local mercantile, in health-food stores in town, and from the back of pick-up trucks. Usually the nuts have already been roasted and salted, although they are rarely shelled. The price per bag is clearly listed; the price per pound is usually absent. Paying $5-10 for a bag of nuts feels reasonable; figuring out that those bags cost $15-40 per pound is a painful realization!

It’s pinon season at Lybrook. There’s GOLD in them thar woods…for someone ELSE to find!

Links for more information:

Prices HERE

Tree Facts HERE

Stories HERE

Another blog entry about gathering pinon nuts HERE

Graveside

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As you recall, the Lopez family has had a tragic year with two fatal accidents on January 1st (blog post about it HERE). A few weeks ago, the family faced yet another tragedy, also involving alcohol and vehicles. This time the deaths were of the mother-in-law and the young son of one of the remaining brothers in the family. In the photo below, you can see the corner of the open grave just beyond the decorated graves of the family members who died earlier in the year.

too many family members

Coming from a protected world, where death is prettied up and gravesites are carefully covered with astroturf, and a tent, and comfortable seating, the stark reality of death out here in Navajoland is striking. The grave is usually dug early in the morning on the same day as the funeral.

grave hole

We have a cemetery here on the Lybrook Community Ministries property; however, the family must arrange with someone else to provide the backhoe. Most families use the equipment from the local Navajo Chapter House (local government).

backhoe

With the recent deaths in the Lopez family, some of the men in the family are experienced backhoe operators. Can you imagine digging the grave for your brothers, inlaws, and nephews??

The dirt is left piled beside the grave. As mentioned in this earlier POST, at the end of the graveside service, family members and pall-bearers will work to fill the hole by throwing in handfuls and shovelfuls of dirt.

These plywood frames are part of the vault system, to help keep the dirt from crushing the casket.

When the graveside service is finished, the extra dirt will be carefully mounded up with silk flowers covering the mound. It might look bright and cheery…but the colorful flowers can’t disguise the heart ache…

gravesI know that death is a natural part of life. But my heart still questions why there is so much tragedy out here as one after another family member dies in such a short period of time.

Please keep this (and other) families in your prayers. They certainly need the HOPE and PEACE that only God can give in the midst of such trauma.

Lessons Learned from “The Week of No Water”

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We get our water from a community water system that serves 60 customers along 20 or so miles of highway. The well is right behind us, with storage tanks atop the mesa.

notice the water tanks to the right on top the mesa…LCM is just over this hill

After a few months of scares, problems, and outages, the pump that brings water up from the bottom of the 1700’ deep well failed.

It took a number of days of scrambling to file the appropriate paperwork, but the State of New Mexico eventually approved an emergency loan of $25,000 to replace the pump.  This turns out to be quite an involved project: the pump, motor, electrical cable and approximately 48 lengths of pipe (each 32’ long) had to be removed with each length of pipe unscrewed by hand before eventually reversing the process and installing the new pump, cable, and pipes. The Navajo water authority donated their services to do this project which was a huge help.

After a week with no water, you can’t imagine how excited we were to hear gurgling in the pipes…and to eventually have a trickle of water coming out of the faucet!

We are so glad the water was only “out” for a week. It could have been worse—much worse, with estimates as long as 2-3 months with no running water if state money had not been granted…

Here, in random order, are some of the lessons I learned during our “Week of No Water”…

  • Imagination is NOT the same as reality… Many of our Navajo friends have beautiful thick long hair. They haul water all the time, and I have tried to imagine how they keep their hair so clean: buckets? Drip showers? Water heated on the stove? When I asked for advice this past week, every one of them told me to just go to a family member’s house, someone who has running water! (Great advice…but my mom lives a few states too far away to run over there to take showers!)
  • Water is FAR heavier than you think…especially when you are dealing with morning after morning of carrying in the 8th or 10th big pan filled with water from the tank on the back of the pick-up truck.
  • Be careful not to strain any muscles when you are carrying those pans of water…there is (unfortunately) no hot shower available to soak away the pain…
  • Actual running water to wash hair is such a treat it doesn’t matter if it is icy cold! (I was able to wash my hair after the Cuba Volunteer Fire Department meeting mid-week. I think the chief was shocked that I didn’t complain about the cold water…)
  • Students are extra thirsty when there’s no water in the drinking fountains at school…(The school stayed open all week—with bottle water, porta-potties, and a “water buffalo” hauled in the by National Guard for water to be used in the kitchen.)
  • Soaking caked-on-food-covered-skillets in cold water is useless, even if the water has dish soap in it. I had to heat water (on the stove or via my coffee-maker) and let the skillets soak in HOT soapy water to scrub them clean.
  • It takes far more pans of water than you think would be necessary to actually flush the toilets properly (and then you sadly remember how much work it is to haul that water inside…) Suddenly it is easy to follow the saying: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” That toilet really does NOT need to be flushed every time it is used…
  • With no running water, you start looking around the property, trying to figure out where would be a good place to put up a few outhouses…after all, that’s what many Navajo have and how things work for many area churches…

    fancy women’s outhouse at a nearby church…

  • When the community water system fails, you suddenly learn how many local people do not understand how things actually work. I was lectured far too many times about how we were discriminating against the Navajo by turning off the faucet they use to haul water—nothing I said could convince them that we, too, had no water…

    like the Navajo families in this area, we too had to haul water this past week…

A Rolling Party…

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We recently learned more about why so many of our Navajo friends have repeat DUIs. It has somewhat baffled us as to why Navajo who live way back on dirt roads where police never drive would choose to get in a vehicle and go for a drive rather than just staying at home to drink in relative “safety.”

party locationOne of my woman friends told me the story of her now-sober husband’s wild partying days. He had a favorite sports car that was his pride and joy. Whenever he got his hands on money, he would jump in his car, head to the nearest carryout to get some beer, and get the party rolling.

Turns out the drinking is often a moving party—someone drives to a buddy’s home and pounds on the door until the buddy comes out and gets in the car. They wander merrily along, drinking and getting silly, as they drive from home to home, packing the car full of friends who are happy to add to the stash of beer and join in the partying.

Ahhh…no wonder there are so many DUIs…the drinking more often occurs in the setting of a vehicle than it does in an anglo-style-party-at-home. This pattern also makes it much more difficult for Navajo who wish to quit drinking. They can’t merely choose to stay away from the party when the party will eventually end up at their door with friends pounding insistently and demanding that all the usual participants need to come along for the ride.

As I have said before, officers from the various police departments are reluctant to get off the main highway and drive on the dirt roads. It might seem logical that the rolling drinking parties would just drive around on the network of back roads. However, to stock up on more alcohol, they usually need to get on the highway to get to a carryout that sells more beer. That, of course, involves drunk driving on the very roads patrolled by the police.

In addition, in the midst of drunken “good ideas,” someone often decides they should drive all the way to town to recruit some buddy who is visiting friends there. With no sober mind to raise objections, the moving party is soon headed at high speed down the highway toward town. And this is when the party often turns tragic—either ending in jail time, felony DUI, or even death.

One more piece in a perplexing puzzle…

Bus Adventures

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A Navajo friend of ours is living in Albuquerque, working hard to finish a degree in Early Childhood Education. Because she hasn’t been able to take care of her elderly mother, take a full load of classes, and work a job, “Sharon” had to quit her job. This meant she eventually quit making payments on her car and had to sell it.

bus oneSharon told me the story of her bus adventures. After giving up her car, she realized that the college is too far from their apartment for her to walk to class. For a few days she was in a panic. She might be able to get an occasional ride from a classmate, but that wouldn’t work every day.

Then she remembered seeing city busses occasionally driving down the major road a few blocks from where she lives. One day, she gathered her courage and some money and walked to a bus stop.

Sharon had never ridden the busses before. She had no idea where the routes ran. She knew there were bus stops on the college campus, but she didn’t know if those were on the same route as the busses running near her home.

Sharon spent the day riding busses, trying to figure out where they ran, working hard to guess when and where to get off to switch to another bus. Eventually she figured out what busses to take to get between home and college. Over the next few days, she learned by trial and error when each bus got to the bus stops she needed.

bus twoSharon explained this process to me in a very matter-of-fact way. She was rightfully proud of how much work she had done to solve her transportation problem.

I didn’t have the heart to ask her why she hadn’t gone on-line to figure out the bus routes. I didn’t mention that she could probably have picked up bus route brochures at her college. I simply congratulated her on her perseverance and her courage in taking a bus adventure!

There’s Something “Wrong” With Him…

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group playWhen I chaperoned science fair winners from our local K-8th Public School to the district competition last month, we had a long waiting period. Most of our Navajo students stuck close together—piling together onto a bench to talk, or huddled together to play board games. My daughter went to the side of the room, choosing alone time to deal with her nervousness. None of the Navajo students commented on that. However, one of the young Navajo students also chose solitude. He played a board game…by himself. He looked through a book…by himself. Others tried to join him which he just ignored. They tried to include him in their conversation—ignored again.

Over the hours we were waiting, each of the other Navajo students came to me to express their concern about Noah. “There’s something WRONG with him…” “Why is he so unhappy?” (while he was laughing to himself as he played both sides of the solitary board game.) “You need to help Noah…”

As we get more and more involved at the local K-8th Public School, we see a problem looming large for our Navajo students. This particular piece of Navajo culture causes difficulties for anyone negotiating the Anglo world. As students progress to higher levels, this preference for being surrounded by a group will cause major problems in the educational arena.

Introvert—Extrovert; Navajo—Anglo … On the one hand, cultures hold different values and that’s okay. On the other hand, when people from one culture need to interact with those from another culture, especially when the positions of power and the rule-makers are from the second culture, problems often loom large. When values clash, all too often those in the minority culture feel that they are disrespected and that they are victims.

We struggle to understand the Navajo preference for doing everything in a group. They may be silent in that group, but we rarely see Navajo alone. When Granny needs to go to the clinic for a cough, the adults in the family call in sick to work, children get pulled out of school, and everyone piles into the car to accompany Granny. When someone takes a coffee break, others need to join them. The same holds true for walking to the bathroom—it can only be done with a group.

Students in our tutoring groups do an excellent job of finishing assignments when they work in a group (with one student doing most of the work, then giving the answers to the others). When asked to work individually, most of them fail miserably. We have tried challenging the copy-ers to step up to responsibilities and do their own work. We have tried challenging the answer-givers to keep their papers protected from prying eyes. Nothing seems to change the dynamic.

When we ask more questions, the students are baffled by our concern. They are adamant that it is the social responsibility of the stronger ones to help the weak ones. They generally dislike competition—working together is a highly held value. They get worried and stressed when they are expected to do things or go places alone.

Our concern is that when they finish middle school here in Navajoland where group-behavior is accepted, they will head to high school in the Anglo dominated world. Although group work is sometimes assigned in the Anglo world, most homework and tests are expected to be completed individually. Plagiarism is often punished with suspension. How can we effectively communicate this to children who are surrounded with the highly-held value of “group-think” and group behavior?

solitary noahWe are wrestling with how to respond to this clash of cultures. We are struggling to know how to best help the students we are working with.

I keep hearing an echo in my head…”There’s something wrong with him…you have to help him.”

And who defines how we should “help”??

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