From Everyday Life to Winter Rituals, These Photographs Show the Life of the Navajo Nation in Arizona

By Kiliii Yüyan
November 26, 2020

Over the years, I’ve taken on an ambassador role of sorts between Indigenous communities I capture and the wider mainstream media audience—relying on my Nanai/Hèzhé (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American heritage. It’s a responsibility I take quite seriously because the access to experiences and stories that I capture are not my own. It’s a collaborative effort to get the stories right—to really understand what issues look like from particular Indigenous cultural perspectives—and how to see a community the way it sees itself. What transpires next is a translation to the wider audience to help them understand what are often vast cultural differences.

Left: A Diné woman wearing turquoise jewelry. Right: A descendant of one of the original Navajo Codetalkers, Aaron Sam is a Hatałii, or traditional medicine man of the Diné. He performs a cleansing ceremony to clear the air inside this hogan, where he performs healing ceremony in conjunction with the Fort Defiance hospital, on the Navajo Nation. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

Much of the work I do is important today because Native communities are so marginalized—Indigenous peoples make up around 5% of the world’s population, but our stories are incredibly important and becoming more so. For example, 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity exists on lands managed by Indigenous peoples. That’s 80 percent managed by 5 percent. Seems only fair that such an outsized influence on the world should get more attention, and in a way that’s both accurate and not so culturally-blind.

Two Diné women take an early morning run in Canyon de Chelly. They say their ancestors have been running in this valley since the beginning of time. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

Mainstream audiences often want to see universal themes and things that apply to themselves as well. But the truth is that many Indigenous cultures really see the world from an incredibly localized way and have a completely different set of values. It’s my hope that I can impart even a small portion of that to people, and especially to Native youth, who are often subject to intense assimilation.

Solar panels and a tricycle rest nearby a Diné ramada, or sun shelter. Ramadas are places where Diné families gather in the summer. Today, as the Navajo Nation continues its efforts to modernize rural areas, renewable energy and Western health initiatives have made inroads. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

I spent a week in January of 2019 photographing life on the rural Navajo Nation, particularly young families that were part of the Family Spirit program sponsored by the tribe and Johns Hopkins. While there, I saw many families immersed in contemporary Diné life, while carefully passing their culture forward. I spent only a short time there, but it was enough to paint a picture of the people—the sacred heart of the Nation.

Spider Rock is the home of Spider Woman, a cherished hero among the Diné, or Navajo. Spider Woman taught the ancestors of the Diné the art of weaving, and her home remains a sacred place on the Navajo Nation. Today Canyon de Chelly is an iconic part of the American Southwest and Native America. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

It’s the desert in January. Here, in Arizona is the upper rim of Canyon de Chelly, a sculpted red rock gorge that compares well with the Grand Canyon for its craggy juniper trees and vibrant colors. 

Left: A juniper tree at high elevation on the Navajo Nation wakes as early morning frost vanishes along with freezing fog. Winter conditions are the norm here, even in Arizona. Right: A free-ranging foal pauses for a moment from grazing in the evening sun near the rim of Canyon de Chelly. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

I hadn’t expected the reds and oranges to be covered in the soft whiteness of snow. My Navajo friends and guides, however, are completely undaunted. This is their home, and they are as excited about the freshly-fallen snow as children. For those that call themselves Diné, also known as Navajo, snow in their ancestral canyon is a timeless special event and something to be celebrated.

Left: Renee Charley picks female juniper berries to make ghost-beads. The berries are dried and then strung into necklaces. Junipers are an important part of Diné spiritual practice. Though the relationship is complex, the berries relate to the connection between the human and spirit worlds. Right: Danielle Nelson holds her niece in the doorway of her family's modern hogan. Based upon traditional Diné earthen lodges, today's hogans are larger and often use a hybrid of traditional and modern construction techniques. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

The  Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, which brought me here, has sponsored a program to help young Navajo families learn to be new parents in a culturally sensitive fashion. My job is to document the program and a way of life for these young Navajo in remote regions of their land. As assimilation by the United States has increased over the past centuries, the need has never been greater for Indigenous youth to know and understand their cultures.

Renee Charley brushes a young woman's long hair with a be'ezo, or bundle of grass used traditionally by Diné for this purpose. For many Native American peoples, hair has special importance, and for Diné, hair is considered a store of memory. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

That’s not far from my mind at the top of the canyon when I see Kristin and Danielle messing about in the snow with the juniper trees. One is standing under a tree laden with snow, while the other furiously shakes a flurry from the branches on top of her friend. As the snow comes down, Kristin gathers it up in her hands and washes her face in it. It’s around 30 degrees F right now, and with the wind, it’s chilling, but Kristin doesn’t flinch one bit as she gets the snow down under her sweater and through her hair.

Kristin Mitchell embracing the snowfall under a juniper tree as it is shaken, taking a traditional Navajo snow bath at Spider Rock. This part of a snow bath is: Yas ninny' bee táádigis bil ádi didiilchil dóó ádaah nidinííldah, or rub your face and body with snow and dust it off. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

This, they tell me, is snow-bathing. Elders have said that to bathe in snow is to remain strong, and to be prepared for hard times. Snow-bathing is also, of course, about hygiene and keeping the body clean. For Kristin and Danielle, it’s also clearly about having a good laugh and a good time, as they take turns shaking snow down on each other and projecting their mischievous laughter down the canyon. And that’s the thing about life for the Diné in modern times. There’s an idiosyncratic blend of ancient tradition, modern technologies, and spiritual resilience. 

Left: Diné women carry on a number of important and renowned craft traditions, including basketry and weaving. Renee Charley spins yarn using a drop spindle, as a baby naps in his cradleboard. Right: Siblings sleep in their cradleboards for a quiet moment inside their family's hogan on the Navajo Nation. Although cradleboards are ancient, they are still in common use by Diné. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan
Left: The young sister of two Diné cowboys waits in a pickup as her brothers drive cattle past on the way to auction. The combination of trucks and horses as tools for cattle ranching are a pragmatic compromise between modernity and tradition. Right: A calf looks on after taking a drink of milk from its mother on a long drive to auction on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

As I worked across the Navajo Nation, I encountered Diné cowboys herding cattle to market, young couples with their first babies tending to them in traditional cradleboards, and medicine people performing healing rituals for their communities.

A calf leaps over brush on the northern portion of Navajo land as a Diné cowboy watches the herd. The two brothers are driving their cattle to auction, and learning the traditional skills needed to continue the long lineage of Diné as herders. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan

Everywhere I looked, I found people that were working hard to overcome the past legacies of colonization and forced assimilation. I found young people reclaiming their culture’s traditions and passing them forward. As I hear the sounds of Kristin and Danielle's snow battle echoing across the canyon, it seems clear to me the future for the Navajo Nation will be strong and enduring.

A group of free ranging horses graze along the rim of Canyon de Chelly, on the Navajo Nation. Horses are considered sacred animals by the Diné, many of whom maintain free-ranging herds. In recent times, drought has brought great suffering to feral horses in the region, which are considered to be heavily overpopulated. Resistance from animal rights groups has prevented culling of the herds to sustainable size. | Credit: Kiliii Yüyan