Willie Cly overlooking Monument Valley.
Hosteen Bahe Slim, Singer.
Nasjah Begas our guide to Rainbow Bridge.
A man oppressed by sorrow, he had just been released from the hospital
where he had been treated for tuberculosis. He had a family to support.
The Rolling Mule, standing rocks.
In 1950, Jonathan B. Wittenberg took his bulky, twin-lens reflex camera on a journey through the Dinetah, the land of the Navajo people. He visited the ruins of the Anazazi pueblo Betatakin, fell in love with the high desert, and resolved to go back. He visited every summer for the next three years, using photography as the means to connect with The People native to the land.
Collected for the first time in Navajo Nation 1950: Traditional Life in Photographs, Wittenberg’s photographs include stark desert landscapes on the reservation, juxtaposed with regal portraits of weavers, dancers, and medicine men. Wittenberg was the only non-native photographer who had access to the Navajo Nation people and lands during the years 1950-1953. Today, access has been limited even further by The People, making Wittenberg’s work even more significant in its rarity.
Wittenburg begins, “Navajo custom requires that I introduce myself: I am a biochemist and biophysicist; professor emeritus of Physiology and Biophysics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. By innate bent perhaps, I am a naturalist. In 1950, I was a graduate student at Columbia University, spending the summer at The Hopkins Marine Station in California attending C.B. Van Niel’s celebrated course in microbiology. On the advice of a colleague, I drove home by way of the Navajo Reservation, where I visited the ruins of the Anazazi pueblo Betatakin, fell in love with the high desert and resolved to go back.
“In preparation for subsequent summers, I spent evenings in the Library of Congress, reading Washington Matthews’ classic accounts of Navajo ways published more than a century ago in The Reports of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution. I obtained quartz crystals and abalone shells, hard to come by on the “Rez,” as gifts to medicine men. Dr. William Mann, then director of the Washington Zoo, contributed a year’s worth of molted eagle feathers. I did not anticipate how short food was and regretted the melons and oranges I did not bring. Two bags of oranges, brought for my own use, were far less than the number of bright-eyed hungry children I encountered.
“Photography for me was a refuge from the intense loneliness of living among people with whom I did not share a language. My Navajo hosts were happy to join forces with me to record and teach their disappearing traditional ways to the Belagaana (American). All photographs were posed, often after a delay for people to put on their best clothes and finest turquoise and silver. The act of taking a photograph was seen as taking value away from a person. Compensation is obligatory, but was often waived. All photographs of ceremonies were taken with the explicit permission of the presiding medicine man. If he felt that something was not to be shared, I did not attend and take pictures.
“In the 1950s names had power and were not casually disclosed. In order to send prints of the photographs to the person portrayed, I would ask, ‘How should I send it?’ Invariably the reply was, ‘Ask that person’ (pointing to someone out of earshot). It would have been exceedingly rude to speak a person’s name to his face. So the names I have used here are mostly ‘post office’ names.
“The early 1950s were a time of tumultuous change in the Dinetah. About 80,000 people were crowded onto land that could support perhaps 20,000 living in the traditional way—farming and raising sheep. The Second World War had depressed the market for wool and for woven rugs; people were struggling. A large, unsettling force was the returning GIs. There was no place and no lifestyle open to them. Something had to give.
“Traditional ways were under attack by young people partially educated in ‘Anglo’ ways. At a squaw dance, the elders bitterly resented the disrespectful ways of the young who dashed about on horseback, wildly drunk, endangering everyone. The pick-up truck was slowly displacing the far more economical horse-drawn wagon, forcing the change to a cash-driven economy. As always, water was hard to come by and was hauled long distances. Bad roads still sustained the trading-post system; it was simply too difficult to get to the supermarket in Gallup. Change was not always good. The Indian Service and missionary schools had ripped people from their own culture and left them dangling between two worlds. The bitter phrase, current at the time, for these unfortunate people caught between two cultures was ‘fit only to be gas station attendants and whores.’
“I, a Brooklyn-born city-boy, I was curiously at ease among The People. The grandson of immigrants, growing up with the sons of immigrants, I was no stranger to social upheaval. The Navajo penchant for the ludicrous fit nicely with the distorted logic of the Yiddish jokes I grew up with. I could swap jokes, and I enjoyed the constant ripple of laughter breaking through gravity with an unexpected phrase, or a bit of mime, mocking the absurd. Above all, it was the overwhelming, welcoming hospitality of the people that made me at home.
“The Navajo are born teachers, but some learning just happens. Navajo Mountain in 1952 was a backwater. The road, a marvel of sheer bravado, was mode of logs laid directly on the slopping rocks; it was only marginally passable. An occasion at Navajo Mountain taught me a lot. We were hanging out, I no longer remember why. Among the company, most dressed in blue jeans, was an old, old man dressed only in a breech clout and wearing a ketoh (bowguard, worn to protest the inside of the left wrist from the snapping bowstring. The outer face is decorated with the best of the silversmith’s craft.).
“The new generation was represented by a young man, aged perhaps four or five, who came out of the Hogan carrying a tray loaded with cups of coffee. He could barely make it over the rough ground. I thought he would fall, but he didn’t and the coffee was distributed. Nobody said anything; none praised him; nobody took any particular notice. But he knew he was a man doing a mam’s work; he was one proud fellow.
“Some matters deserve comment: I admire the cradleboard. I have never seen an unhappy child in a cradleboard. It must be wonderful to grow up bound by lightning and surrounded by the rainbow. Life is a constant mobile as the board is held by doting mothers, grandmothers, siblings. When there is work to be done, the cradleboard is propped so that the baby can watch. It is the beginning of a continuum. The watching infant becomes a toddler helping, a child participating in chores, a teenager assuming responsibility. The child is not treated different from an adult. I have sat in a circle of people discussing a matter of import. When a child wished to speak, he was listened to with the same gravity, the same dignity, the same allotted time as any other person. My wife and I later tried to emulate Navajo respect for children in raising our own.
“Harmony with the natural world, decorum, and respect for all things must be maintained in daily life. I once spoke casually of bears and was promptly told that one does not say the name of the bear when he is up and about in the summertime: Not because it is forbidden; it is not, but because one should not be rude to the bear any more than one would be rude to a man by speaking his name in his presence.
“Navajo Mountain, thanks to the inspired school teacher, Elspeth Eubank, was a bright spot. Mrs. Eubank taught bilingually in English and Navajo, in open defiance of Indian Service regulations. Their inspectors, intent on a surprise disciplinary visit, would get almost to Red Lake, four hours away on nearly impassible roads, before Mrs. Eubank was warned of their imminent arrival by bush telegraph.
“Mrs. Eubank told the tale of the defeat of the US Army at the ‘Battle of Navajo Mountain.’ This was wartime, and the Navajo were willing enough to allow a radio station atop their sacred mountain. They were not willing to have The Mountain desecrated. When the Corps of Engineers arrived with earthmovers and bulldozers ready to slash a road up The Mountain, Navajo men armed with rifles were found standing idly every hundred yards or so across the land. The army beat a wise retreat. Parlay was held and a compromise found. The army was permitted to ascend the mountain by regular trail and build their station, but offerings of turquoise were placed at appropriate spots.
“At the time of my visit, Mrs. Eubank’s son, Randy, was perhaps 11 or 12 years old and very much a part of the land. He and his best friend, Clem Rogers, a Navajo lad, explored the countryside together, collecting arrowheads and horned toads in uncaring violation of traditional custom. Arrow heads were left by the Anazazi and are left severely alone; the horned toad is one of the Holy People. This was the beginning of change; fifty years later these same customs were almost forgotten. Thanks to the help of these two boys, I spent a night on top of Navajo Mountain with a panopoly of stars and a far-seeing view of the land. The dilemma was that Mrs. Eubbank and Randy must leave this rich idyllic life to get Randy a proper education. I thought it a tragedy. I still find it sad. But isn’t this every man’s dilemma?”
Canyon de Chelley seen from the south rim.
Weaver with a rug to be proud of.
Son of Willie and Happy Cly.
Weaving a rug depicting corn, the tree of life.