Shonto Begay, NAVAJO VISIONS AND VOICES ACROSS THE MESA, Scholastic, Inc. NY: 1995; 45 pages oversize hardbound, profusely illustrated with large paintings. $15.95. Available from Oyate.

This is a very highly recommended beautiful book, for every age, purpose, and readership.

Native art books for young people are rare. This one will be a pleasure to any age; reading level is about grade 4+, can be read aloud. Begay says "The paintings and poems explore facets of Navajo life that are rarely touched upon in Western literature. They will take you into the corners of my world, the Navajo world, so that you may experience daily life on the mesa in the 20th century."

Begay was born in a Hogan, one of 16 children. He lived through the first stirrings of Native pride. The "hope and shock" of the changes that came to the Indian world at that time inform and shape his paintings. These paintings were not made as illustrations for a children's book. They are full-page, sometimes 2-page spread, reproductions of large ones that Begay has done in his life as an artist, some in museums and private collections.

He has arranged them to tell a story, which he is quite adept with words in expressing. He starts with "spiritual elements and stories we tell," moves to his childhood past, focuses on members of the community and their lives, and ends on "a note of hope with the promise of early spring." But his paintings are the hart and spirit of that story; his poems and narrative are its frame.

The Scholastic editors evidently liked one of m favorite paintings, for they made it the dust jacket of the book. It's done from the perspective of someone facing west not long after sunrise. You see his shadow pointing at a hawk, stretching long from the bottom margin across a very closeup landscape of flat snow patches -- "mother's lace" in his accompanying poem - - and small evergreen bushes. No sky, no horizon is visible, just the immediate foreground holding the shadow.

The flat, brown earth showing through forms rough silhouettes of many dream-shapes which the unseen person says are "Beauty all about me, as I walk." Earth patches that show through the snow-lace form rough shapes of a hors, a deer, an eagle; children may find more than I did. encouraging them to do so will help them se other dimensions of these realistic paintings that are done with delicately swirling broad, impressionistic strokes.

Begay is found of reflections, secondary images, as visual metaphors for the two worlds the people of the mesa simultaneously inhabit: the earth w all walk and the spirit world in which some of us also walk. In another painting, an old woman sits cooling her feet in a reflective puddle of water, refreshing the desert. She sees the sky -- and a raven high above mentioned in the accompanying poem -- only in reflection. In another painting, Begay and other children marvel at "little crescents of light" that appear on a darkened hogan's floor, as the frightening death of the sun -- an eclipse -- is reversed and "the sacrad symbol of all creation was reborn that day for me," when his father boldly stood in the face of darkness outside and sang to call back the sun.

Another painting -- close-packed faces, of all ages, races and walks of life from hippies to what appear to b FBI men -- form a crowd canvas of "many faces, many stories" as the tribal fair is about to begin. Begay tells those stories only by the faces: the character, the expressions, which awaken on's own imagination. In "Navajo power plant" a large man wearing jeans and a small turquoise necklace is foregrounded kneeling to offer pollen to a small plant -- while tiny in the background corner is an insignificant representation of the huge coal-fired generator at Page, that pollutes the clear desert skies for a thousand miles (and threatens the earth and water table in the strip mines that produce its fuel) to make electricity for Los Angeles. One power "gives strength and wisdom here and now -- one gives power to strangers somewhere over the horizon." What's foregrounded will last; what's in the background, shrinks to a temporary insignificance in that context.

In another painting, the reflections are of the literal side mirrors of a pickup, whose Navajo passengers ar conversing while a European hitchhiker doubtless there to pester the people with desires to attend "your spiritual ceremonies" dozes in the bed of the pickup nibbling his organic snack, oblivious to the everyday spiritual experience that is happening, and the ceremonies of the people who briefly stop the truck to pray and show their appreciation of Coyote's brief appearance.

On the "second night" of one of the great Dineh healing ceremonies, we don't see any of those typical dancers, the sort of thing talented youths of the southwest were encouraged (by non-Indian teachers) to paint. A group of people, seen closeup across their campfire were playing cards, "chasing, teasing" -- but at this moment, all are seeing something, not the same thing perhaps, gripped by awe. And this is the best way I've ever seen to depict a ceremony. It is reflected in their faces, and in two mysterious hands formed of the firelight and the spiritual joining of the people around the campfire. Those hands seem to float, but they are at the ends of the arms of a man wearing glasses, who is simply stretching them to get warm.

He's right, these images and the words he weaves them with into his story "are rarely touched upon" in any products of Western literature, in anthropology, in minority cultural diversity education, or babblings of trivial spiritual tourists. They are there to be seen through reflections -- reflections within the lives of the people. The producers of that stuff want to ignore the reality and daily lives of those people. As a result, they miss or distort what the artist is able to show by reflection, and cause within us real reflections too.

For an example of Begay's writing, read a story from this book: Grandfather explains the disappearance of the Anasazi.

--Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 1996 - 12:53:47 AM