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The James Museum from Home

Connect with us through curated content based on our collection. Explore art, movies, books, music, children’s activities and more. Each theme is freshly considered and developed by our curatorial and education teams. We invite you to discover a new way to experience the museum and learn more about our collection.

Theme: Navajo Culture

Explore the rich history and cultural traditions of the Navajo people through a variety of lenses, including visual art, music, literature, films, food, and more.

Selected Artwork

Through six works of art, learn about artists, their processes, and the stories they tell about Navajo culture and history.

Brownell McGrew 
American, 1916–1994 
Children of the Sun 
1989
Oil on engineered wood panel 

Art Spotlight

By: Jason M. Wyatt | Collections Manager

Looking at this painting, the viewer can’t help but recognize 20th century traditional Navajo clothing worn by the children. Like all fashion, Navajo clothing has changed many times over the centuries.

The earliest clothing was made from woven yucca fibers and consisted of dresses, blankets, breechclouts and footwear. As time progressed, animal hides became the preferred material to make clothing that now included shirts, leggings and moccasins.

The introduction of sheep to the Navajo culture in the 17th century changed the way people dressed. Wool became the dominant material used to make many types of garments, including blankets and dresses. One of the most distinctive pieces of clothing developed during this time was the “blanket dress.” This simple dress consisted of two wool blankets stitched together at the sides and shoulders leaving openings for the arms and head. It was tied around the waist with a sash, or later, a concho belt.

One of the most significant turning points in Navajo fashion occurred as a result of the Long Walk in 1863, when over 9,000 Navajo were forced to relocate from their homeland into internment camps in the Bosque Redondo region of the New Mexico Territory. For many Navajo women in these camps, this was their first time seeing commercial cloth and a European style of dress. Once the Navajo could return to their homeland, they continued to use commercial goods acquired through trading posts. These stores increased their contact with non-native people which had a significant impact on Navajo fashion. Navajo women began favoring long pleated skirts made of satin, calico or velvet paired with long sleeved velveteen blouses and shawls. Men began wearing long pants made from light-weight cloth, long-sleeved velveteen shirts, and headbands. Both men and women continued to wear moccasins and adorn themselves in silver and turquoise jewelry consisting of necklaces, bracelets and concho belts. Today this way of dressing is reserved for ceremonial purposes and important occasions.

Alfredo Rodriguez 
Mexican American, born 1954 
Sharing the Shearing 
1984
Oil on canvas

Art Spotlight

By: James Museum Curatorial Staff

For centuries, Navajos have raised sheep for wool and meat. The tradition of shearing without using electric razors has been passed down through the generations.

According to the artist Alfredo Rodriguez, he has featured this family in his paintings over the years. For this scene, the women suggested this subject of traditional sheep shearing with hand shears to preserve the way their ancestors used to do it. In setting up the scene, he was surprised to see the women wearing turquoise and silver jewelry. With permission from his Navajo friends, he added jewelry on the children as well for a bit of embellishment.

Sheep are a vital part of Navajo livelihood and culture. In the 16th century, conquistadors brought an Iberian breed of sheep called Churra to the Southwest due to their hardiness and ability to adapt to harsh environments. These sheep were very important to early Spanish ranches and villages not only because they were used as food, but because their wool could be used to make clothing. Beginning in the 17th century, the Navajo began acquiring these sheep through trade and raiding parties. Churra sheep became so important for Navajo economies that selective breeding methods focused upon adaptability to the environment and fleece quality. These practices created the breed now known as the Navajo-Churro.

Navajo-Churro wool is ideal for weaving because of the variety of naturally occurring colors as well as the long, smooth, silky fibers with low grease content that can be easily spun into yarn. By the 18th century, the Navajo had become known for their intricate and detailed weavings using wool.

Ray Swanson
American, 1937–2004
Wanna Share the Frybread?
1994
Oil on canvas

Art Spotlight

By: Caitlin Pendola | Curatorial Associate

Ray Swanson, a self-taught artist, is primarily known for his incredibly detailed paintings of the Navajo and Hopi peoples.  Before painting his subjects, he spent time getting to know them, a process involving many visits over the course of a few years until he gained the people’s trust. This mutual respect between Swanson and the tribes led to an invitation to join the Continental Confederation of Adopted Indians where he received a Lakota name that translates to “He Paints Like Magic.”

In this image, the artist depicts a Navajo child sharing frybread with a dog.  The story of frybread begins in the 1860s, during the Long Walk, when thousands of Indians were forcibly relocated onto barren land that could not support farming.  They survived off government rations of white flour, processed sugar, and lard—the makings of frybread.  Today, frybread has a conflicted status among Native Americans.  Some believe that it is a symbol of perseverance and survival in the face of adversity, while others believe that it is “the taste of colonialism and oppression.”

The artist has presented us with a similar conflict.  He has interpreted a happy child, representing hope, wearing a Navajo squash blossom necklace, representing the resiliency and pride of a culture.  The child is depicted on a barren ground with frybread, a reminder of a horrific chapter in history.

Rick Nez
Navajo (Diné), born 1960
The Long Walk
2004
Utah alabaster

Art Spotlight

By: Caitlin Pendola | Curatorial Associate

Navajo sculptor Rick Nez has the exceptional ability to carve vitality and emotion into the cold hard surface of a stone.  His artwork often takes us back on the Navajo timeline, and in this case, to the dark days known as “The Long Walk.”

Beginning in 1863, after a U.S.–ordered campaign to “starve the Navajo into submission,” 9,500 Navajo and 500 Mescalero Apache were gathered and forced to walk from their tribal homelands (in what is now Arizona) to the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation in New Mexico.  It was a 400-mile trek, and those who survived the walk were forced to stay by gunpoint. The reservation was barren with no crops, polluted water, rampant disease and bitterly cold winters.  Over the course of four years, approximately one third of the population died.  Today, many Navajo still refuse to speak of this time.

Nez poignantly captures the oppression by placing the U.S. soldiers at the top of the sculpture, watching the march from above.  He also skillfully captures the brotherhood and resilience of the Navajo people who are seen carrying the young and the sick.

Sculpting Utah alabaster has been described as a, “collaboration between the artist and the stone.”  The unique patterns and colors of each individual stone lead to the artist making changes as they work.  Stone sculpting is a subtractive process, meaning material is taken away to reveal the final product, and there is little room for error. The contrast in color that you see is determined by how Nez treats the stone.  Bruising, or engraving the stone with a tool turns it white.  The areas that reveal the warm color have been sanded and polished to reveal the stone’s natural color.

Click play to see the sculpture from a different angle

Mike Larsen
Chickasaw (Chikashsha), born 1944
Navajo Code Talkers
2000
Acrylic on canvas

Art Spotlight

By: Emily Kapes | Curator of Art

Hundreds of Code Talkers served in the Pacific during World War II starting in 1941. They transmitted vital messages by phone and radio with a code they developed based on the Navajo language. Their actions proved critical in many campaigns, including the Battle of Iwo Jima, because the Japanese never deciphered the code. Despite how terribly the U.S. government had treated Native Americans, the tradition of protecting their people called many Natives to serve in the United States military. During World War II, when the total American Indian population was less than 350,000, an estimated 44,000 Native Americans served.

The artist includes 19th-century Navajo warriors such as Cayatanita, Manuelito, and Barboncito alongside U.S. Marines from the 20th century. This scene combines time periods and symbolically demonstrates a continuation of bravery and knowledge among the Navajo people.

Art Spotlight

By: Emily Kapes | Curator of Art

While mostly known for paintings, Abeyta sometimes experiments with sculpture and jewelry.  This sculpture is a deconstructed version of a traditional totem that reflects the artist’s Navajo heritage and contemporary style. The geometric designs and bold colors include elements of Navajo Yei deities. Black horizontal lines suggest eyes and small circles represent mouths.

Tony Abeyta
Navajo, born 1965
Untitled
2011
Painted wood with copper

CLICK PLAY TO SEE THE SCULPTURE FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE
Click play to learn more about the artist

Books

The James Museum Book Club Recommends…

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

By Hampton Sides

A tragic chapter in America’s past, the Long Walk was a series of forced marches that expelled thousands of Navajo people from their homelands to an internment camp at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, in the 1860s. It wasn’t Kit Carson’s idea, but he was the architect of the scorched-earth campaign, making him the most despised figure in Navajo history.

Hampton Sides’ book, Blood and Thunder, is Carson’s story. The book tells us about the Long Walk but goes well beyond it to deliver a wonderfully nuanced portrait of a complicated man. Carson was extraordinarily brave, a gifted scout, and a man who understood and respected Western tribes better than any other American at the time, yet he willingly followed orders that would ultimately devastate the Navajo nation. He guided explorer John Fremont’s expeditions, carried dispatches cross country on mule back, and fought in both the Mexican American War and the Civil War.  His daring exploits—largely fictional—were featured in “blood and thunder” paperbacks of the 1800s, about which Carson was never consulted. In fact, he couldn’t read them because he was illiterate.

Was Carson an American hero or a cold-blooded killer? Sides tells us he was both.

Helen Huntley

Book Club Discussion Leader

Visit these historic sites in New Mexico and Arizona to learn more.

The mission of the The Kit Carson Home and Museum is to inform the public about the life, accomplishments and experiences of Christopher “Kit” Carson and to preserve the Carson family home and artifacts for future generations.

The Bosque Redondo Memorial’s mission is to respectfully interpret the history of two cultures, the Diné (Navajo) and the N’de (Mescalero Apache) during the United States government’s military campaign of ethnic persecution in the 1860’s.

The park is located in Chinle, Arizona, and is entirely on Navajo tribal lands with families living in the canyon.

More Books

Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation

By Michael Powell

The moving story of a Navajo high school basketball team, and its members’ struggles with the everyday challenges of high school, adolescence, family, and the great and unique obstacles facing Native Americans living on reservations.
Find on Amazon

Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII

By Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila

The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of World War II. Nez’s remarkable story puts a living face on the legendary men who developed what is still the only unbroken code in modern warfare.
Find on Amazon

Navajo Poets: Listen and Read

Luci Tapahonso was the first Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation. She is professor emerita of English Languages and Literature at the University of New Mexico. Listen as she shares how her poetry honors words.
Watch on YouTube

Laura Tohe is a writer, scholar of Indigenous American literature, associate professor of English at Arizona State University, and the current Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation. Listen as she reads from her powerful book, No Parole Today.
Watch here

Esther Belin is a writer and multi-media artist. She holds degrees from Antioch University, the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the University of California at Berkeley. Read a poem from her award-winning book, From the Belly of My Beauty.
Read here

Movies

View an array of feature-length and short films that show slices of life in the Navajo Nation, both past and present.

Feature Films

Racing the Rez (2012)

In the rugged canyon lands of Northern Arizona, Navajo and Hopi cross-country runners from two rival high schools put it all on the line for tribal pride, triumph over personal adversity, and state championship glory. Win or lose, what they learn over the course of their seasons will have a dramatic effect on the rest of their lives. (59 min.)

Miss Navajo (2007)

For 50 years, the Miss Navajo Nation pageant has celebrated traditional values, language, and inner beauty. Held over a five-day period, contestants are required to showcase skills that are crucial to Navajo daily life, including sheep butchering, fry-bread making, and rug weaving. Centered around 21-year-old Crystal Frazier’s quest for the Miss Navajo Nation crown, this film reveals the importance of cultural preservation and the meaning of being a woman in Navajo culture. (60 min.)

Short Films

A brutal drought gripping the Southwest is hitting New Mexico and the Navajo reservation especially hard, threatening traditional shepherds and a pastoral way of life going back generations. Filmed in 2019, this short film accompanied a story in the Los Angeles Times about the challenges faced by 62-year-old herder and weaver Irene Bennalley. (5:59 min)

Watch Now on YouTube

Barbara Teller Ornelas and Lynda Teller Pete are award winning fifth-generation Navajo weavers and authors of the book, Spider Woman’s Children: Navajo Weavers Today. They share some of the fascinating history, cultural traditions, and techniques of Navajo weaving. (11:45 min)

Watch Now on YouTube

Produced by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian as part of their 2008 traveling exhibition “Native Words, Native Warriors,” this short film tells the remarkable story of Native American Code Talkers – soldiers from more than a dozen tribes who used their Native languages in service to the United States military in World Wars I and II. (11:45 min.)

Watch Now on YouTube

For decades, thousands of Navajos worked the railroads, maintaining the trans-continental network. Metal Road explores the dynamics of livelihood, family, and the railroads through the lens of a Navajo trackman. The film follows three Navajo railroaders from the 9001 Heavy Steel Gang as they leave their homeland to replace aging railroad tracks from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean under extreme weather conditions. (27 min.)

Watch Now on Amazon

A partnership between Lucasfilm Ltd. and the Navajo Nation Museum, the original 1977 movie Star Wars was dubbed into the Diné (Navajo) language. The effort took three years as translators searched for ways to marry intergalactic Star Wars speak with a communication form grounded in ancient and often earthly traditions. This short film documents the premiere on July 3, 2013 at the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock, Arizona. (3:30 min)

Watch Now on YouTube

Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef now based in Minnesota, brings Native cuisine back home to the Navajo Nation in Arizona. There he looks for true Indigenous ingredients, as even “classic” Native comfort foods like fry bread have colonizer origins. Yazzie plans to cook for a small group of family and community leaders, but word spreads and suddenly he’s serving a large crowd of curious and impatient local elders.

Watch Now on PBS

Made by three young Navajo filmmakers, The Rocket Boy tells the story of an imaginative boy who builds a makeshift rocket in hopes of finding his lost father. Shot on a budget of $600 and completed in three months, it premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2011. (15:00 min.)

Watch Now on Vimeo

Foodways

Navajo Fry Bread

Find out how fry bread is made and learn about its complicated history.

Fry Bread Nation: A Tragic Necessity

A staple food for the Navajo Nation, fry bread has a complicated history. Born out of tragic necessity, it simultaneously calls up historical trauma, perseverance, pride, and public health issues.

Cooking Fry Bread: Navajo Traditions, Monument Valley

A look at the Navajo tradition of making fry bread and cooking mutton in Monument Valley, part of the Navajo Nation. (1:45 min)

Try It With Us: Cooking Demo

Inspired by the children’s book, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, by Kevin Noble Maillard, Angela tries her hand at making fry bread for the first time.

Family Activities

Story Time

The Hogan that Great-Grandfather Built

By Nancy Bo Flood

More Kids Stories

Art Activity

Totem Sculpture 

Create your own geometric totem inspired by artist Tony Abeyta.

Paper Weaving

Learn how to create your own paper weaving inspired by Navajo rugs and blankets.

Sing-Along

Baby Shark Navajo

Sing along with Baby Shark in Navajo language.

Music & Games

Music

Flute Performance by R. Carlos Nakai

Music by acclaimed Native American flute player R. Carlos Nakai (Navajo/Ute) set to aerial footage over Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah.

Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio – Preview

Created for the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra’s 60th Anniversary Season, with music composed by Mark Grey. The text is by Diné (Navajo) poet and Arizona State University professor Laura Tohe. It is the story of the healing of a Diné war veteran suffering from the trauma of combat after his return from a foreign war.

Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio – Part 6

The story of the healing of a Diné war veteran suffering from the trauma of combat after his return from a foreign war. In part six, strength and hope are summoned from the sacred mountains.

Games

Invaders

A spin on the classic arcade game Space Invaders, this version is designed and programmed by Elizabeth LaPensée, with art by Steven Paul Judd and music by Trevino Brings Plenty. Ratings vary depending on the platform you choose.

Sleep guardian

In this simple yet challenging game, you are a dreamcatcher, tasked with the important job of ensuring the little girl under your care has a good night’s sleep. Catch the bad dreams in your web to destroy them, while running into good dreams will give you bonus points. Unrated

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