Shí Yázhí “there is money underneath your fingers”
Michaela Paulette Shirley & Kayla JacksonThis essay is dedicated to our Diné ancestors, and to present and future generations of Diné artists. We hope to inspire upcoming Diné youth artists, and current Diné artists, arts administrators, educators, and policymakers. We have the power through the arts to create pathways out of being baa hojooba’í by using a Hózhó-centered (harmony, balance) arts management praxis. In a big-picture way, we believe in a Diné artist cultural economy rooted in Diné traditions of K’é (relations), intergenerationality, artist-led and culturally-informed practices, and sustainable management of land and culture.
There are three sections to the essay. In the first section, we introduce ourselves. The second section describes the creative and cultural Diné landscape to give context for the arts and artists who originate, live, and create arts and crafts in the Navajo Nation. The final section sets out foundational principles for a Hózhó-centered arts management framework. In doing so, we invite our ancestral artistic roots and lived experiences into writing about a Hózhó-centered arts management praxis.
Personal StoriesWe wrote this essay drawing from our lived experiences at home in Kin Dah Lichii and Round Rock, respectively, in northeastern Arizona. We came to know each other through an ArtPlace America project, Engaging Indigenous Creative Placemakers-Connecting the Dots through PlaceKnowing, a two-year collaboration between the University of New Mexico Indigenous Design and Planning Institute (iD+Pi) and Diné College School of Arts, Humanities, and English. During our time spent together, we came to know each other and our shared interest in Diné arts. When the opportunity came to write together about arts management, we accepted because we come from generations of artists in our families who crafted beautiful rugs and sold them for survival. We heard similar family artist histories through our K'é relations from school and work, which got us thinking about a Hózhó-centered arts management praxis. In writing this essay, we thought about who our audience would be, what we are hoping to achieve, and how we could convey in a big-picture way the contribution of Diné arts and artists in empowering all of the Navajo Nation. We have been woven and crafted into resilient women by our grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, and fathers who have supported their families with their creative traditional art forms: rugs, silver and turquoise jewelry, pottery, baskets, and sand paintings.
Meet Kayla JacksonHowdy, I come from Round Rock, Arizona. My clans are Ma’ii Deeshgiizhnii nishłí’ Kin Yaa’áanii bashishchiin To’ Di’ch’íi’nii da shi cheii Scottish, and German da shi nalí. My family gave me these clans to represent myself on my journey through life. Growing up, I helped my grandmother Evelyn D. Chee start her rugs. She took great pride in designing her rugs and spent a century of her life making them. Chee lived a full Hózhó life of 103 years and sold her rugs across the world. She would tell me, “Shí Yázhí (my little one), there is money underneath your fingers.”
As a youngster, I had no clue what she meant. Now, as an artist, I finally understand. It was her way of encouraging me to think and earn creatively. When I feel discouraged, I repeat that phrase to myself. It will always spark my creative desire to expand and to create.
I am a photographer, and take great pride in conveying our Navajo Ranching lifestyle. My grandfather was a Navajo agricultural master. He taught my mother how to farm and tend to the livestock: sheep, cattle, horses, and pigs. My mother and father taught me the importance of tending to the land and livestock. In return, you are blessed, for you care for Mother Earth and her wonderful creatures that roam her lands and restore abundance.
During my last year as an undergraduate student, I saw the need to help future Diné artists. I soon was accepted into Colorado State University’s MFA Arts and Leadership program. Talented, driven Diné artists have much to offer the creative world. Many Diné artists have spiritual ties to their artwork. Currently, I am helping my community create new opportunities for our future Diné artists.
Meet Michaela Paulette ShirleyYa’ah’tééh. I am Michaela Paulette Shirley, a Diné daughter, sister, auntie, grandma, friend, and scholar. My clans are Water Edge, born for Bitter Water, my maternal grandparents are Salt, and my paternal grandparents are Coyote Pass. I grew up in Kin Dah Lichii in northeastern Arizona on the Navajo reservation. Several of my youthful summers were spent at sheep camp in the mountain with my shínálí asdzą́ą́ (paternal grandma), Isabelle Shirley, a traditional rug weaver, sheepherder, educational advocate, and foster grandparent at the local school.
Shínálí asdzą́ą́ is 94 years old and still lives on her own and walks up the hill to my parents' daily. She attributes her health and stamina to her life’s hard work in rug-making and sheepherding. One of her earliest memories was when she sold a small rug she’d weaved to a local trader. She was so happy. She revered rug-making because it allowed her to buy new shoes and food for her family. It made her proud to help her parents, and she continued her rug-making into adulthood. Weaving empowered her to provide for her family. I am thankful to my parents for sending me to sheep camp to help shinálí asdzą́ą́ because I was able to learn the important Diné values of sheep, family, community, the land, and education.
Diné Creative and Cultural LandscapeDiné, or Navajos, as we are commonly referred to by non-Diné, have been adamant stewards of our land, which was gifted to us by our Holy People. Diné (The People) call our traditional homeland Dinétah (The People’s Land), an area defined by sacred mountains that represent the four sacred cardinal directions. The east mountain, Tsisnaasijini' (Dawn or White Shell Mountain), also known as Mount Blanca, is located near Alamosa, Colorado. It is the tallest mountain in the Colorado Sangre de Cristo range. The south mountain, Tsoodzil (Blue Bead Mountain or Turquoise Mountain), also known as Mount Taylor, is located north of Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. The west mountain, Doko'oosliid (Abalone Shell Mountain) is listed on maps as San Francisco Peaks, and is located near Flagstaff, Arizona. The north mountain, Dibé’nitsaa (Big Sheep), or Mount Hesperus, is located in the La Plata Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Within this revered territory, Diné have made our homes, practiced our religion, raised children, fought defensive wars, governed, and developed modern reservation economies.
Artwork as CreationTraditional art forms of weaving, pottery-making, jewelry-making, and sandpainting are blessings from Diné deities. According to oral history, Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá (Spider Woman) plays a vital role in our creation stories. She is responsible for weaving our universe and aiding the Twin Heroes in defeating monsters that were rampant and killing The People. Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá teaches us to weave our beautiful rugs, and it is said that she takes away misbehaving children. She lives at Spider Rock, a 5,863 feet tall sandstone edifice, in Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona. Diné believe that she still lives there, and when we want to be gifted the power of weaving, we have to find a spider web at dawn and delicately place our right palm on it. Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá taught Diné how to do string designs that are primarily used for educational purposes. She created and developed the string designs for hand-eye coordination, which is useful for the teachings of rug-weaving and other traditional art forms. This requires keen hand-eye coordination bestowed and developed as children.
Diné Creative WorldsDiné emerged into our traditional territories from other worlds, and are blessed peoples who continue to herd livestock, grow and harvest crops, run and walk the land, and live in Hózhó with each other. Diné have prevailed on the land for countless generations, making our way into this present-day world by working together, caring for each other, and trading goods and services amongst each other and with external peoples. Invariably, we will forever be known as Diné: The People.
Over the generations, Diné created and traded rugs with other Indigenous peoples in exchange either for services, like ceremonies, building a home or sheep corral, shearing sheep, animal husbandry, or for cultural goods, like corn pollen, firewood, livestock, hay, and seeds to plant. This way of living was the evolution of Diné cultural economy and it continues today. Diné artists have contributed to our cultural economy. Diné communities have formal institutions where Diné arts and crafts are sold and traded, like at the museums across the Navajo Nation, local and historical trading posts, the Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction, and the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise. However, there are also informal spaces and places where Diné artists sell arts and crafts, traditional jewelry, and clothing. Hazhdiilwo'i are outdoor flea markets, which, in English, translates to “you run through it.” They can be found in semi-urban locations across the Navajo Nation at Window Rock, Tuba City, Chinle, Crownpoint, and Shiprock. While there is no public information available on the Internet to find these sites, they are usually located along major roads near other shopping centers or gas stations. Other informal sites and ways of doing business include selling from one’s home, operating a food stand next to the highway, or bartering in strip malls or bank parking lots. Diné cultural economies rely on social and kinship relations that occur year-round through local Diné markets, and markets that are open to tourists visiting the Navajo Nation. There are also numerous internationally-known Diné artists that sell their arts and crafts around the world. Notable artists include R. C. Gorman, Harrison Begay, Quincy Tahoma, Hosteen Klah, and Daisy Taugelchee.
Clans and BelongingClans are essential to Diné identities, relations, land-people connections, and ancestral continuities. Before she left on her westward journey, Yoołgaii’ Asdzáá (White Shell Woman or Changing Woman) gave Diné our four major clans: Kinyaa’áanii (The Towering House clan), Honágháahnii (One-walks-around clan), Tódich’ii’nii (Bitter Water clan), and Hashtł’ishnii (Mud clan). Interestingly, Changing Woman was taught the string games by Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá. Today, Diné have over 100 clans.
Diné clan system is matriarchal. This allows us to introduce our mothers, fathers (his mother’s clan), maternal grandfather (his mother’s clan), and paternal grandfather (his mother’s clan). This tells us about the genealogies of the various communities across Dinétah. For example, the story of the Àshįįh (Salt clan) came about when a Hopi woman married into a Diné family in the Chinle area. Another example is the Ma’ii Deeshgiizhii (Coyote Pass clan), when Diné and the Jemez Pueblo intermarried. Diné are matrilocal. This means that husbands move into their wives’ homes. This traditional land settlement goes back countless generations and continues today, but it was disrupted by the introduction of single-family housing developments and after schools built on the reservation.
In the Diné creation story, our ancestors traveled through four worlds. Our third world distinguished the separation of genders—the split of the sexes was to isolate them from each other due to unresolved conflicts that were irreconcilable. For example, traditional gender roles teach that Diné females are the heart of the hoogan, the traditional Diné dwelling. They do the cooking, cleaning, and weaving. Diné males are the protectors of the hoogan. They provide shelter, safety, and provide the warmth of the hoogan. As time passed, females had to learn male roles and males developed female roles to keep their comrades alive and well. In some versions of the creation story, it is during this time that the nádleehí (Two-Spirit) came about because the men needed effeminate men and the women needed manly women. Nádleehí are important members and contributors to Diné families and communities because their gender fluidity balances social relations as needed. Actually, the most famous Navajo artist and medicine man, Hosteen Klah (mentioned above), was a well-respected nádleehí that paved a way for today’s nádleehí populace.
Traditional and Contemporary ExpressionWe were woven and crafted into resilient peoples by Diné families with creative traditional art forms: rugs, silversmithing, turquoise jewelry, pottery, baskets, and sand paintings. Diné continue artistic traditions while innovating contemporary forms using photography, creative writing, dance, music, culinary arts, fashion, and painting. These art forms, traditional and modern, have been passed down from generation to generation, from ancestor to ancestor, and from community to community. Diné artists make beautiful arts and crafts through what Leanne Simpson calls “embodied practice,” which comes from people living on the land and interacting with it through hunting, fishing, and foraging. Diné artists’ creative expressions are unique because we continue to live in the place of our ancestors. Diné artists gain wisdom through ceremony, song, and being on the land of our ancestors.
Reimagining a Hózhó-centered Arts Management PraxisHózhó-centered arts management praxis raises awareness and encourages Diné artists to value their worth and contributions to our historical and present-day cultural economy. This praxis entails partnerships between Diné artists that are not policy-centered or politics-driven. It is about helping artists to thrive and take care of themselves and their loved ones. A balanced Diné-centered arts management praxis makes for more assertive and empowered Diné communities. In this last section, we reimagine an arts management praxis centered on Hózhó. An evolving Hózhó vision prioritizes: 1) enhancing Diné arts and cultural leadership, 2) fortifying intergenerational K'é networks, 3) being artist-led and culturally-informed, and 4) combining visions for culture and land management.
Enhancing Diné Arts and Cultural LeadershipA Hózhó-centered cultural economy would flow into a business culture but not in a bilagáana (Anglo white) exploitative manner. Diné create trends that inspire Diné followers and other fellow Indigenous artists. In doing so, they develop a following and a new leader is born. Leader is a bilagáana title that we give ourselves, or that society gives us. Keith Grint, in his book Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, explores the evolution of leadership and the idea that leaders cannot exist without followers. Grint states, “these leaders provide guides to the mass of fashion-followers without any formal authority over them.” Bilagáana followers emulate what Diné are creating, oftentimes leading to cultural misappropriation. Diné provide additional inspiration and a guideline toward new creative cultures. Grint agrees, “Without followers, you cannot be a leader, no matter how many 'individual' competencies you might have.” Diné artists are navigating the pandemic and adapting their creative outlooks to obtain new followers. Diné artists find connections amongst other Diné artists that bring awareness to what Diné want to contribute to the economy. It is up to each artist to find their worth in their art and art-making, far beyond any art market designation or art collector. Diné artists leverage their social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, etc.) to obtain followers, or buyers, for their artwork. Young Diné artists are emerging leaders for the next generation.
Intergenerational K'é NetworksHózhó-centered arts management praxis is family-centered and rooted in an intergenerational Diné kinship, known as K'é. K'é is a core value of Diné practice and equates with kinship. It is a bridge between families. Within art, we use K'é to stabilize our relationships and networking. It is family-centered; these traditional art mediums are given to each clan family, and it is up to the families to carry on their art forms for future generations. Traditional art becomes an intergenerational asset to families. It provides protection and guidance for them. Moreover, financially and spiritually, the family can use their art forms to sustain their family legacy. Families of artists are like artist-led collectives, and they work together to ensure that everyone gets to sell their items. They often work with other family artists to build up their inventory and to produce a variety of artworks.
In the spirit of K’é, we also would like to call out any negativity toward Nádleehí (Two Spirited) in our families and communities. The strength of the Nádleehí is the diversity of viewpoints and contributions that they bring to art, art-making, and critical insights for creating a safe and prosperous next world. The LGBTQ Two Spirit peoples help in examining the politics and semantics of the heteronormative superstructure that reproduces and oppresses Diné, or worse, pits us against each other and jeopardizes Hózhó. We are baffled by how there is still discomfort when talking about or collaborating with LGBTQ Two Spirit peoples in our families and communities. It is essential for all relatives to be respected, cared for, loved, and prayed for if we are all to design and plan for the next world, and to consider the question: how does a Hózhó-centered arts management praxis protect K'é?
In many Diné families, some art forms are passed down from grandparents to parents to children to grandchildren. Each succeeding generation learns the craft through observation and practicing on their own as young children. As adolescents, they begin their apprenticeship with the older family members, where more sophisticated techniques are learned. When they become adults, they are prepared for successful and fruitful years of earning a living through their arts and crafts, or to pursue non-art careers while doing their arts and crafts on the side.
Apprenticeships support family and community resilience. In times of economic hardship, the ability of Diné to make arts and crafts is what kept their families fed. Elders begin to transfer their artistic knowledge and techniques to their grandchildren, just as they remember learning them when they were little. Apprenticeships are intergenerational and family-centered; they are learned from grandmothers, taught to daughters, and then introduced to grandchildren. This is a never-ending process and will only cease if there is no community determination to teach and to learn. A great example of community agency is the Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction that pairs local Diné weavers with tourists and hosts a monthly rug auction for the public. It has been community-led through the Navajo Weavers Association of Crownpoint since 1964. Young Diné influencers also shine brightly in their own right. Ror example, Jaclyn Roessel or Tony Abeyta balance their traditional knowledge and values with their creative talents as they harness the power of the Internet and technologies.
Learning from intergenerational practice is imperative to provide and continue artist-led programs with the youth in traditional or contemporary art. By teaching art to children, we provide an outlet for sustainability and the continuation of growth. A goal for our youth is to be culturally informed, included, and led toward K'e. It is important for our youth to gain respect for their culture as it is the bloodline of our tribal communities. As Diné, we also see that we have to inform our children about Mother Earth in our art—we need to respect her, help her heal, and plan for her future. When we give all back to Mother Earth, we feel whole with K'é and gain the strength to move forward.
Artist-Led and Culturally InformedHózhó-centered arts management praxis has traditionally been artist-led. There are few formal institutions that manage Diné artists. Artists have the autonomy to look out for themselves, and they are independent of the formalities that would tie them down if represented by an arts manager. They have the power to determine what they want for themselves and their families. They have control over how they want to be represented by themselves and for themselves. They control the prices, assign value to their artwork, and let you know if you are underselling their artwork. They can articulate what they need and how they will advance their craftsmanship or enter into competitions together.
Hózhó-centered arts management praxis is culturally informed. A culturally informed approach means that every day Diné artists practice their traditions and design their values into tangible arts and crafts that become part of people's homes. The cultural ways of doing art and living are instilled in Diné as children, thereby making our childhood the most crucial time to develop into who we are today. Such a process means that we take what is essential and leave behind aspects that are not healthy.
A culturally informed praxis also means that some Diné artists will be asked to create motifs for specific ceremonies and will not be monetarily compensated, but instead blessed by our Holy Ones for their offerings. It is also important to mention here that art has a role in Diné ceremonies, too, like sand paintings that a traditional medicine person will do to help heal their patients. And because there is an emphasis on the cultural aspect to a Hózhó-centered arts management praxis, we recognize and are aware of not reproducing a white anthropological colonial gaze on ourselves. In other words, we do not essentialize aspects of our identity, traditions, and values for the sake of selling our culture or art works.
Diné arts and crafts exist on a spectrum from traditional art forms (like weaving and silversmithing) to contemporary art forms (including photography, creative writing, and culinary arts). All Diné art forms are unique, just like the individuals who created them. Moreover, Diné art forms should not be perceived as being entirely representative of Diné culture because each artist comes from a distinct community across the Navajo Nation. Diné artists use the chance to create freely and express themselves without limitations due to societal preferences. Diné artists hold their cultural teachings within their art and art practices, never losing sight of their passion to create art.
Management of Land and CultureHózhó-centered arts management praxis is land-based. The relationship between land and its artists becomes integral to forming community and its histories, social structures, and art forms. It should be noted that while the type of community discussed here is place-based to a specific geographical location and territory, it also entails spaces like social media, community associations, and interest groups on and off the Navajo Nation. Land-based practices unveil territorial relationships between and among the artists, animals, and plants that have informed and built the traditional and contemporary art forms.
The praxis is a continually creative and iterative process of manifesting hope in the land and people relationships that are revealed in the various art forms. Land-based approaches will preserve the chances of artistic inheritance for future generations not yet born. Cultural management can be passed down, just as livestock management has been passed down, from generation to generation.
Diné contexts include territories of land and dreams. In "Intense Dreaming: Theories, Narratives, and Our Search for Home," Dian Million describes intense dreaming in this way:
In thinking about the Diné relationship to land and people, it is important to understand that ties to land have been cut or damaged by the federal government through forced removal.
Dreaming to me is the effort to make sense of relations in the worlds we live, dreaming and empathizing intensely our relations with past and present and the future without the boundaries of linear time. Dreaming is a communicative sacred activity. . . . I also believe that dreaming, theory, narrative, and critical thinking are not exclusive of each other. They form different ways of knowing, and I will ask that we might imagine them as uneasy relations and alliances that may acknowledge inclusion while we call for respecting necessary boundaries.
Diné artists can restore a balanced connection between people and land because our ancestors have mastered this process, and they have become successful by understanding the process of creating a product and marketing quality pieces. They have understood land management as never overgrazing an area, learning from their previous management, and constantly adapting to find new ways to succeed. We carried our livestock management knowledge over to our arts management and see land and culture as crucial aspects with tremendous meaning that are interwoven together to make our managing skills unbreakable. Land management is critical in sustaining our families and our heritage. Hózhó-centered arts management will need to be sustainable because Mother Earth is essential to Indigenous arts and culture. We are tied to our Mother Earth. She provides for us. We must respect her.
ConclusionHózhó-centered arts management is family- and place-based, decentralized, and founded upon ancestral knowledge and love. Our framework will enhance Diné arts and cultural leadership, strengthen K’é relations, fortify intergenerational networks, be artist-led and culturally-informed, and provide a sustainable vision for land and cultural management. Diné-centered arts management does not function in a western, bilagáana way that is institution-based, centralized, extractive, or profit-driven. However, there are bilagáana aspects of arts management, like its business tools (marketing, management, and planning), skills in critical thinking, organizational development, fundraising, and networking that can be used to Diné benefit. Our vision is to empower the future Diné artist. Having our powerful arts and culture be the center of our future is a grand testament to our confidence in Diné art. Hózhó-centered arts management, practiced and implemented by us and for us, has the power to attain ił hózhǫ́ and overcome baa hojooba’í. We are working toward the big picture of a Diné artistic cultural economy rooted in Hózhó.
Index of Diné Terms
Baa hojooba’í: Poor, needy
Bilagáana: Anglo, white
Diné: The People
Dinétah: The People’s land, or traditional homelands
Doko'oosliid: Abalone Shell Mountain
Dibé’nitsaa: Big Sheep Mountain
Hazhdiilwo'i: Outdoor flea markets
Hózhó: Harmony, balance
Hoogan: Traditional Diné dwelling
Kin Dah Lichii: Red House
Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá: Spider Woman
Nádleehí: Two Spirited
Shí Yázhí: My little one
Shínálí asdzą́ą́: Paternal grandma
Tsisnaasijini': Dawn or White Shell Mountain
Tsoodzil: Blue Bead Mountain or Turquoise Mountain
Twin Heroes: Sons of Changing Woman, born of Water and Monster Slayer
Yoołgaii’ Asdzáá: White Shell Woman or Changing Woman
Recommended ResourcesHanley, Andrea. “Navajo Art Today Through a Curator's Perspective: Some Key Issues.” Presented at the What is Diné Art Today? Virtual Conference, Zoom, March 25, 2021). https://vimeo.com/530395651.
Lister, Majerle. “Episode 23: Navajo Philosophy, Art Education, and Academic Imperialism.” Produced by Anchor FM. Wósdéé Podcast. March 30, 2020. Podcast, MP3 audio. https://soundcloud.com/wosdeepodcast/episode-23-navajo-philosophy.
Million, Dian. “Intense Dreaming: Theories, Narratives, and Our Search for Home.” The American Indian Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2011): https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/447049.
Sublette, Mark. “Episode 148: Shonto Begay: Navajo Artist, Educator, and Author." Art Dealer Diaries Podcast. April 14, 2021. Podcast, MP3 audio, https://open.spotify.com/episode/4z4oaX2QSG7JOZbT8VXGDq?si=Z9aFMtnMRBmpl8DY18Tj0Q.
Wilson, Will. “Contemporary Photography and Navajo Placemaking.” Presented at the What is Diné Art Today? Virtual Conference, Zoom, March 25, 2021). https://vimeo.com/530397340.
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- Readers can consult a list of Diné terms at the end of the essay. ↵
- Veronica E. Verlade Tiller, Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country: Economic Profiles of American Indian Reservations (Albuquerque, NM: Bow Arrow Publishing Co., 2015), 225.↵
- Michaela Shirley, “Role of School in the Community Development of Kin Dah Lichii, Arizona” (masters thesis, University of New Mexico, 2015).↵
- For more information about the Diné creation story, please visit https://www.lessonsofourland.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/PreK_Lesson-1_Four-Worlds-Story-of-Creation.pdf ↵
- For more information about the importance of nádleehí in Diné/Native communities, please visit https://doi.org/10.17953/aicr.35.4.x500172017344j30 ↵
- Leanne Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 191.↵
- Keith Grint, Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 6.↵
- Ibid, 13. ↵
- “The Rug Auction of Crownpoint,” Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction, last accessed May 2, 2021, https://crownpointrugauction.com/.↵
- Dian Million, “Intense Dreaming: Theories, Narratives, and Our Search for Home.” The American Indian Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2011), 315, https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/447049.↵