Children's Books

FORBIDDEN TALENT, story and illustrations by Redwing T. Nez, as told to Kathryn Wilder. Northland Publishing, P.O. Box 1389, Flagstaff, AZ 86002-1389, (800) 346-3257, (800) 257-9082 FAX. Northland also has a line of southwestern design T-shirts and other gifts. Illustrated. 32 pp., $14.95 cloth. 0-87358-605-0, Ages 7 - 12

With so much emphasis on teaching art skills at an early age, non- Indian children will be confused when they read about Ashkii, a Navajo boy who is told by his Grandfather to stop painting because it is not the Navajo way. Ashkii, however, needs an artistic outlet, so he paints stripes on a horse with clay, brands the sheep with paint, and chips designs into the water tank with a rock. Unable to keep his disobedience to himself, he confesses to his Grandfather what he has done and is told that to the Navajo, every work of art serves a purpose and must be used wisely. Nez's oils are warm, beckoning, and make this a beautiful book, but they don't clear up the story's perplexities, such as whether Ashkii's misdeeds caused his Grandfather to begin working on a painting. While "Forbidden Talent" doesn't efficiently cross cultures, the book, with a little explanation, will be readily understood and accepted by Indian children. Grade: for non-Indian children: B-, for Indian children: A-. Reviewed by Steve Brock

A Second Look: There's something quite puzzling to me about this book, an indicator that just because an author is of some tribal background doesn't mean he knows that much about his tribe's history. Although there are some cultures (or religions) that forbid representational art (for example, Muslims), there's no indication Navajos ever had this taboo. In historical times, Navajos were among the first to take up painting and drawing on paper: Beatin Yazz (Jimmy Toddy) began painting professionally in the 1930's, and became nationally known when he illustrated the children's book Spin a Silver Dollar (which I loved as a child) in 1945. Its huge sales, over the years, were almost entirely due to his illustrations, rather than the fairly flat story.

Andy Tsinjannie, R.C. Gorman, Harrison Begay and Charlie Lee are Navajo painters of national reputation who began painting in the 1930's. It was in 1932 that the BIA established at the Santa Fe Indian School an art class for instruction of young Native artists of the southwest in painting and drawing, mostly watercolors on paper (because canvas and oils were too expensive). Representational or pictorial art was practiced by some Navajo weavers, though this was highly discouraged by traders, who had formalized and standardized non-traditional abstract patterns, such as Two Grey Hills or Ganado Red which they found good markets for at high prices. So pictorial rugs were liked by Navajo people themselves, rather than entering the Art Mart, during the period it was controlled by on-reservation traders.

Representational murals are found in kivas (i.e. Pueblo), and pecked or painted on rocks as petroglyphs (artists unknown) all over the southwest. Pottery painting is realistic (as well as abstract) for more than 1,000 years. In none of the actual history is there anything that suggests a Navajo elder would try to stop a grandson from painting or drawing because the paintings were "only" beautiful or interesting, rather than practical or religious. That there wasn't much drawing or painting before the BIA suddenly decided to sponsor it is because the people didn't have paints and paper (or canvases) for it, not because it was forbidden to do.

Gramps, here, discouraging his grandson, is either a phoney (and so is the plot device of this story) or he's pragmatic old fellow like, say, a Midwestern redneck who doesn't doesn't want to see his kids wasting time (but the story doesn't suggest that). The plot device is a non-existent, made-up tradition. Since the author's last name is Navajo and this is an "as told to" story, maybe Nez was trying to tell a story not about some phoney traditional forbiddance, but about some particular narrow-minded old guy, or maybe he was just making it up as he went along for the non-Indian who actually wrote it.

Probably the biggest "forbiddances" to young southwest Indian painters came from Dorothy Dunn and others of the BIA Art School. They had certain notions about what authentic Indian painting should be -- flat, decorative, nothing 3-dimensional in the way of scenery or realistically modeled (people, animals) -- which were strongly inculcated on the Native students (and later rejected by some) as the only acceptable "authentic Indian style" for Southwest Indian painters of any tribes. This was educationally and financially (through marketing) enforced just as strongly as traders enforced their idea of hot-seller fake trad designs on Navajo weavers.

Because this is an as-told-to story, there's no way to tell what the storyteller really had in mind here. If, as he told it, the same idea of "forbidden" was presented, that's just wrong as a Navajo tradition, though it's quite possible some old folks didn't want their kids doing it, considered it a waste of time, wanted the kids out with the sheep, working. Insofar as it purports to convey some kind of Navajo tradition about forbidden drawing to non-Indian youth or youth of other tribes who may believe it, I think the book is harmful. It says that this creative expression, for a highly creative people, was traditionally (not individually) forbidden. And that's just not so.

There are obstacles for young Indian artists, all right. The main ones all come from the fact that the art market is controlled by white people, who make most of the money from Indian artists' work, and who define what is "Indian" art. Museums and art critics treat Native art as ethnographic expression, rather than considering it on a par with "real" world-class art. It goes into anthropological museums and specialty galleries, or tourist curio shops, not the big main-line ones, i.e. it's ghettoized. At the commercial level, Indian artists are sought (sometimes) to illustrate Indian books, but not for all the rest of the commercial tasks that support general design school grads who just want to make a steady living at ad illustration, corporate reports, commercial brochures, textbooks, computer games, trade book jackets and such. That type of story would have a somewhat older Ahskii fighting it out unsuccessfully with the art director of Wired or Harpers magazines, fired as a game scenario artist by Sierra On-Line, his portfolio scorned by an ad agency, and other more typical scenarios of standard commercial art frustration. Gramps might then suggest the lad could perhaps do better with sheep or as a casino manager. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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

Last Updated: Monday, March 11, 1996 - 11:37:17 AM