Thursday, July 3, 2008


The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts recently bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award upon local Navajo basket artist Mary Holiday Black. Prior to the presentation, my attention was drawn to the Youth Fellowship Awards. Brittany Begaye, a 13 year old Navajo weaver, and Ruthie Edd, a 13 year old Navajo painter, were each awarded $500 for their artistic efforts. Each young artist, in her expression of gratitude, promised to use the cash prize to further her individual art form.

Shawn Begay weaving
4 Year Old Navajo Weaver Shawn Begay

Seeing young artists striving and thriving is one of my greater pleasures since joining the trading ranks over twenty years ago. Traders can be simultaneously a clairvoyant and obtuse bunch. Hindsight is 20/20 and foresight is 20/whatever. With that in mind, Barry, Steve and I often find ourselves peering into the crystal ball and wondering about the future of American Indian art.

Today, a disconnect exists between the enormous success contemporary artists such as Tammy Garcia, Tony Abeyta and Vernon Haskie enjoy, and the long path of apprenticeship necessary for a younger generation to reach similar expressive and financial heights. Plainly stated, there are not enough young Native artists to sustain the momentum generated by the last century of Native American creative output.

Shawn Begay weaving
4 Year Old Navajo Weaver Shawn Begay

Brittany Begaye and Ruthie Edd are rays of hope. Allison Snowhawk Lee’s sons, Trent and Kyle, are rays of hope. Angelina Holiday, emulating her mother Elsie’s fine basketry technique, is a ray of hope. My favorite sunbeam, however, is a little boy named Shawn. Brittany, Ruthie, Trent and Kyle have benefited from exposure to more sophisticated methods for progressing in the Indian art market. Shawn, at the tender age of four, is simply motivated to be the man of the house.

I first met Shawn when he was three years old, shadowing his Aunt Cecelia and mother, Colleen, into the trading post. Cecelia Curley, a Navajo pictorial weaver, was following her “once-a-year” program. Annually, I pass some unwritten test which signals my readiness to purchase another family member’s weavings. Colleen and her husband hail from Sanders, Arizona. She understands weaving pictorials, while her husband is a fabulous raised outline weaver. I purchased three rugs from Shawn’s dad prior to his disappearance.

A month passed before Cecelia and Colleen returned. Colleen’s husband, Shawn’s dad, was in jail. Colleen and her two young sons had moved in with Cecelia and were struggling. Unable to buy her pictorials because of an overabundance of that particular style, we wondered how to move her forward.

Another month passed before Colleen brought in a small raised outline weaving. “I thought you didn’t know how to weave this style”. Colleen answered, “I have been watching my husband for years, so I figured it out. I lock myself in my room so no one may see what I am doing. This is now my own special style”. Over the ensuing months, Colleen worked in this new manner and brought me the results. Every once in a while, she had both boys, but most often, it was her oldest, Shawn, who accompanied her.

Shawn Begay weaving
4 Year Old Navajo Weaver Shawn Begay

The now four year old Shawn decided he wanted to be the one proffering her weavings. At first, his negotiation skills were understandably wobbly. He would slap the rug on the counter and emphatically state, “Five dollars”. Suppressing a smile, I bent down and said, “Shawn, you may want to ask a little more for your mom’s weaving”. “One hundred dollars!” Colleen giggled, poked him gently in the ribs and whispered a sensible resolution.

After several more months, Cecelia, Shawn and Colleen stopped in with more small rugs. Shawn proudly marched to the counter and said, “I’m weaving a rug”. Colleen explained that Shawn had slipped away with one of her small looms and tried to teach himself to weave. Upon anyone’s approach, he would hide his attempts under the bed. Colleen finally unearthed his secret enterprise. “Would you like me to show you how?” she queried, and the weaving apprenticeship of this four year old commenced.

After a couple more selling visits, Shawn proudly walked in with his own creation, a small banded rug featuring his highly personalized color scheme. “How much?” I asked. “Five dollars!” “Hmmmm, I think your weaving is worth more than five dollars”. “One hundred dollars!” We worked through the pricing ritual once again to our mutual satisfaction. “What are you going to do with the money?”, I probed. Shawn puffed up his small chest and exclaimed, “I’m going to buy some shoes”.

Shawn tells me he wants to make rugs like his dad. His father is now out of jail, but not allowed to see the family for another three years. Shawn will remain, for the time being, the man of his house while I nurture a bittersweet hope for this little boy’s nascent endeavors.

With warm regards,

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