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Photography majors experience life on Navajo reservation

September 09, 2010

There was no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing in the hogan where six ASU students slept on the Navajo reservation. But there was silence broken by the whisper of the wind, incredible shades of blue skies at twilight and moonlight that cast shadows during the night.

ASU undergraduate Tiffiney Yazzie invited a small group of her friends and fellow photography majors to experience a lifestyle this summer that is far removed from most students’ normal routine. Photos documenting their trip will be displayed Sept. 13-24 during “Dine Bikeyah: Familiar Views Foreign Eyes” at the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Step Gallery.

Yazzie is a student who experiences life in two worlds – one through the eyes of an ASU student and the other through the traditions of the Navajo people. She easily fell back into her role on the reservation during the trip as she helped butcher a sheep, shear the animals and accompany relatives on daily trips to fill a 300-gallon water tank for her grandparents who herd sheep in the canyonlands near Chinle.

“I thought it would be a great idea to have my friends experience what life is like there,” she said.

Students spent a week in July with Yazzie’s grandparents who live according to traditional Navajo ways in a matriarchal society where herding sheep is a way of life for many people.  

It was a life-changing experience for some of Yazzie’s School of Art friends who never had been exposed to tasks such as butchering a sheep. Photography major Megan Chain became a vegetarian after witnessing the process.

“I just figured there was such a disconnect to the meat that we buy in the store,” Chain said.

Adrian Lesoing, also a photography major, has been a vegetarian for the past two years, but she didn’t find the butchering upsetting.

“It wasn’t scary or awful," Lesoing said. "It was almost like, you take care of the sheep and the sheep will take care of you.”

Logan Bellew, a photography and art history major, rode with Yazzie’s mother to the homestead. When a coyote ran across their path, Tiffiney’s mother, Rosita Yazzie, stopped the truck, got out and offered a prayer and corn pollen to the Navajo omen.

“It was a surreal experience,” Bellew said. “It was really powerful.”

Yazzie’s grandparents only speak Navajo, but they were welcoming to the students and thankful that they could offer an educational experience for them.

“They’re a traditional family living in a time where contemporary western ideals are seeping into their culture,” said photography major Sarah Keller.

That meshing of lifestyles was illustrated in graphic terms by Yazzie’s grandmother, Elousie Yazzie, who wore traditional Navajo dress and Louis Vuitton shoes while butchering the sheep.

“She butchers faster than anyone,” Keller said. “She can still lift giant bales of hay.”

Watching the family’s connection with the land, embracing of natural forces and their inter-dependence on family members was enlightening for Keller who contrasted the traditional way of life with modern existence.

“It’s not about them trying to shelter themselves from the land,” she said. “It’s all about conserving and using what you need.”

Students on the trip mentioned the clear air, the silence, kerosene lamps for lighting, lack of indoor plumbing and living out of a huge cooler full of ice and food during their time spent on the reservation.

“I was never so grateful for indoor plumbing as when we came back,” said Teresa Valencia, who recently graduated with a degree in photography from ASU.

The cameras suffered from the fine-grained sand that blew in the wind during the days.

“My camera is still crunchy from the sand,” Bellew said. Valencia remembers hunching over her camera in Canyon de Chelly, trying to protect it.

Photographs from the student’s experiences on the Navajo reservation chronicle daily life, animals, plants, tracks, landscapes and a myriad of additional images in the collection of approximately 120 photos on display. Some photos contain graphic material such as images that detail the process of killing and preparing a sheep.

“For me, the photos are a pinched moment of time and a by-product of a way of life,” Keller said.

The opening reception for “Dine Bikeyah: Familiar Views, Foreign Eyes” is from 6 to 8 p.m., Sept. 14. The exhibition runs through Sept. 24. Step Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m., Monday to Thursday and from noon to 3 p.m., on Fridays. The gallery is located at Tempe Center, Suite 174, at University Drive and Mill Avenue. Admission is free. Additional information: and