Danielle Emerson

My Grandmother’s Work Table

As a young girl, I loved laying under my grandmother’s work table, watching as she molded life out of clay. Diné Bizaad poured out of the radio, the Navajo language mixing with the faint scent of wet dirt to fill the room. Sensing my wonder, my grandmother would invite me to stand beside her. I’d shape miniature sheep while she molded Native men and women around hogans. I’d sneak portions of clay from her table into my mouth, reveling in its fresh taste. She’d playfully slap my hand, stifling laughter. Years later, Itraveled with her as we took our work to sell at various art festivals. Side by side, we stood. As we exchanged creative processes with onlookers and fellow artists, our smiles were never restrained. We connected to our traditions and celebrated the cultures of other tribal artists across New Mexico and Arizona.

Artwork has been a part of my family for generations. My paternal great-grandmother wove rugs from sheep wool, cleaning the freshly cut hair, brushing out stubborn clumps, and boiling special herbs to create dye. She sold her rugs to uphold Diné tradition—and to feed her children. Inspired by my great-grandmother’s traditional weaving, my paternal grandmother pursued a career in clay work. My father and uncle followed her example as well; one became a sculptor, the other a painter. Under my grandmother’s influence, I took up landscape painting. Through art, my family and I capture both modern and traditional perspectives of Diné life on the reservation.

My family has participated in a variety of Native American art venues, including  Farmington’s annual Totah Festival: Indian Market and Pow Wow, where Native American artists ranging from woodcarvers to jingle dancers share their talents over frybread and mutton stew. There, I met dozens of Native artisans from various backgrounds and cultures. I watched as children chased each other—tumbling through the grass, jumping over rocks, collecting rogue sticks. I felt at home among the circle of drummers who sang our traditional songs, their voices carrying across the courtyard. It’s here that we basked in a feeling of pride and acceptance. We learned from each other and helped one another grow.

These art festivals taught me that everyone has their own story to tell. As illustrated by the myriad of art genres displayed annually, every attendee has something to share, whether traditional or contemporary. These events bring my community together, allowing us to recall our tribulations while celebrating how far we’ve come. We preserve and express our voices in clay, wool, wood, music, and words. Generation after generation, the medium of art that my family creates changes; we are painters, cooks, weavers, storytellers, sculptors, and dancers. Though our mediums shift, the purpose behind them remains: pursuing creative expression, encouraging individuality, and owning our stories with undeniable pride.

Every individual carries their own narrative, possesses their own connection to culture. My father creates personified crows, my uncle multicolored horses, my grandmother miniature sheep, and I create landscapes of orange sunsets and mesas. My father feels close ties to the sacred nature of the crow, a good omen tied to the spiritual connection between the Navajo people and animals. My uncle admires the horse’s perseverance and strength. My grandmother respects the cultural traditions of everyday Diné life: shearing sheep, making frybread, caring for livestock, and weaving magnificent rugs. And I rely on the land of Dinétah, the traditional homeland of the Navajo, for spiritual and personal comfort—even as I attend college on the east coast. We each possess our own connection to art, and everyone has a right to share that connection in any way they desire: among family and friends, in statewide art festivals, studios and gallery spaces. No one can take this away.

My great-grandmother’s art started a chain reaction. Without that first spark, my family history would have been altered drastically, my perception of the world shifted. My great-grandmother’s continued artistic passion helped her succeed, and her creativity helps me—and others like me—thrive in an ever-changing world full of new perspectives and experiences. Embracing a community of art invited me to share my own story and the story of my people. Our art brought us together, just as art brings together communities across the world. Attending art festivals didn’t just expand my knowledge of the world beyond the reservation—it gave me a better understanding of life within.

 

Danielle Emerson is a Diné undergrad student at Brown University studying Education, Literary Arts, and Theatre and Performance Studies. She is from Shiprock, New Mexico and proudly identifies as asexual. Her writing primarily focuses on the Native American experience, self-identity, representation, empowerment, and family dynamics. Danielle is a strong advocate for diverse representation in YA/children’s literature. She is currently working on a play through Brown’s undergrad theatre program centered on daily Indigenous life and cultural knowledge.