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Looking for America: The Navajo Nation
of Fighters and Healers
Beneath a pile of woven authentic Native American baskets which i set aside one by one, resting in a dark portion of the cabinet, in an outlet of vintage handcrafted items by Native Americans here in San Diego county, home of the largest number of Native American reservations, a geometric rendition that seemed to be a symbol of a deity symmetrically drawn on what seemed to be very old, sand paper, was safely ensconced on the wall but hidden from anyone. It looked so solitary – for lack of a better term – that i picked it up. Here it is (android-shot nine days ago)
We drove all the way here from Los Angeles because we could not find authentic Native American stores with handmade Native American items in Los Angeles county — except big malls with mass-produced dreamcatchers made in China.
From the Valley to Escondido to Old Town San Diego, we examined each store, and found “Native American” products made in Indonesia or made in Honduras: the store keepers were honest enough to say where they originated, and we also checked their labels. We picked up a couple of items (dreamcatcher and wallet) just as a backup because I was nearing the end of my stay here. Crossing an ocean 7,300 miles, I felt almost resigned after one storekeeper said: “If you’re looking for indigenous items, this area was once part of Mexico, so these … (she points to some multicolored ponchos and chalecos) are the native American products.” And a maracas or two.
One storekeeper who overheard that we wanted to buy authentic so the proceeds could go to the artisans, said “Well, I’m 43% native American …” Witty. Looking at our sweaty faces, she was kind enough to write down for us the areas where the Native American reservation areas were located, where there are outlets of their products. She was very generous with the information, jotting down names and marking them on our map. Maybe she was half-native American. In general, sales associates and storekeepers we’ve encountered, from Sherman Oaks to Hollywood, from Topanga to San Diego, are helpful, friendly, and courteous.
Myra used old-fashioned research in the internet to verify the information…
And now we are here.
i turned over the sand art to see the reverse side: Handwritten on what seemed to be very old paper, I could make the words “ceremonies” and “to help” or “to heal”. Signed as “Emma Yazzie”. Because it looked very old, I thought this might be something, and brought it to the proprietor of the store for a description. Here it is (android-shot nine days ago)
The proprietor looked at it closely and said: “This is part of a collection from the 1960s or 1970s, a resident, Martha Murdoch, brought it here a decade ago with other souvenir items she kept in her basement, to help the Navajo residents, she had bought from them and kept their in her basement and forgot all about them, until she decided to clear out her basement. This is sand art by the Navajo native Americans, it represents the ceremony they perform on certain occasions and whenever they wanted to heal a member of their clan. They would gather on the sand and, by using colored sand, they would carefully arrange the colored grains of sand to draw lines and make a figure. The actual sand painting that they made on the sand was never preserved. But their artists made representations such as this one.”
i asked where the collector was, and the proprietor said the collector/ original owner had died recently at the ripe old age of 95. I asked who the Navajo artist was, “Emma Yazzie” and he said that “Yazzie” was a common name among the Native Americans like “Smith” among Americans. He asked me where I got this and I pointed at the corner. We walked to the cabinet and he found pictures of the collector/ original owner. Here they are (android-shot nine days ago)
Based on the fashion and hairstyle in these photos, this seems to be from the 1970s.
On the spot, we searched the artist in the internet, and slowly, I saw the store proprietor’s face getting more and more astonished as we read who the Navajo sand artist was. But he could no longer change the tag price on the sticker pasted on the reverse side of the sand art.
The work was the “Yei Bei Chai” by famed Navajo artist Emma Yazzie, an original with a handwritten note signed by the artist herself.
The Yei Bei Chai, according to navajopeople.org, is a nine-day ritual of healing involving chants, songs, meals, ceremonies performed by representatives of deities, use of symbolic figures made of prayer sticks, kethawn of yucca fibers and twigs, and others.
Here is Emma Yazzie, image by rfgartphotography used here non-commercially for academic purposes:
Here is how she was described by the Chicago Tribune (1976) and the New York Times (1979), excerpts from the archives:
And more, from book chapters written about her:
i sensed that this piece must be important so I bought another piece, which turned out to be another sand painting, “Little Star Form” by well-established Navajo jeweler Harry Begay. Here it is (android-shot nine days ago)
And here is its inscription at the back, handwritten and signed by the artist (android-shot nine days ago)
The Yei Bei Chai was the last Emma Yazzie piece in the store.
(i’m giving the Emma Yazzie work to a friend, a scholar and an advocate of indigenous peoples.)
(the Harry Begay work, i’m keeping for myself)
My sister and I were looking for memorabilia — and we found a priceless part of the story of America.