March 30, 2015

Humanity and Complexity: "The Navajo Times" previews "Diné Spotlight"

The Navajo Times published an excellent review by Alysa Landry of "Dine Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film," a public program at the museum in New York April 9 and 11. Subscribers can read the original article online. For nonsubscribers, the Navajo Times has generously given the museum permission to reprint Ms. Landry's review.


Humanity and Complexity: ‘Diné Spotlight’ to show accurate picture of what it really means to be Native

By Alysa Landry

NEW YORK CITY – When it comes to movies, much can be said about aspect ratios and picture quality, but regardless of a movie screen’s height and width, the picture itself is still flat.

That’s especially true when it comes to most mainstream films about American Indians, according to Angelo Baca, a Navajo filmmaker and graduate student at New York University.

The National Museum of the American Indian is trying to change that with a two-day fi lm screening featuring two full-length films and 17 shorts.

The free event, “Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film,” runs April 9 and 11 at the museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York. A total of 14 Navajo filmmakers will have their work shown, with topics ranging from love stories to science fiction to the gritty, hard-hitting stories of modern life on the reservation.

The combination, Baca said, should leave spectators with a more accurate picture of what it means to be Native.

“These films bring complexity and dimension to an otherwise one-dimensional and conflated representation of Native Americans,” Baca said. “They cover a wide range of things that people don’t necessarily associate with Native Americans. They show how much humanity and complexity we have as people.”

Baca, who is pursuing a doctorate degree in anthropology, will moderate a discussion held after the screenings. He believes the event will help bust stereotypes – especially for an audience at the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

“A lot of museum-goers are expecting a certain kind of film,” he said. “Navajo filmmakers are doing great work and breaking expectations, breaking a lot of rules. They are going beyond the stereotype that Indians belong in documentaries or behind glass.”

In this scene from Sydney Freeland's feature-length film "Drunktown's Finest," a rebellious Navajo man clashes with his Army recruiter. (Courtesy photo, Smithsonian Institution) 

Diné Spotlight opens April 9 with a screening of Sydney Freeland’s acclaimed film, “Drunktown’s Finest.” It continues April 11 with a series of short films, followed by the New York premiere of “Chasing the Light,” by Blackhorse Lowe. Both feature-length filmmakers will participate in discussions after their movies play.

Organizers are expecting a crowd of 250 or more, said Cynthia Benitez, film and video center programmer for the museum. The screening coincides with the ongoing “Glittering World” exhibit, which showcases the jewelry of the Yazzie family of Gallup, N.M.

The two events together allow the museum to shine a spotlight on the Navajo Nation and encourage conversation about its modern culture, Benitez said. The museum is also bringing some of the filmmakers to the exhibit, offering visitors the unique opportunity to “meet the people behind the objects.”

“You can’t tell these stories through artifacts,” she said. “When you have contemporary films, it gives us another educational aspect to offer visitors who don’t realize that the Navajo are not just turquoise jewelry or ancient people. With films and filmmakers here, people can ask them questions directly.”

The films selected explore themes that resonate with the Navajo people – and with humanity as a whole, Benitez said. That includes the struggles of a transgender woman in Freeland’s film, Drunktown’s Finest,” and suicide and drug addiction in Lowe’s film, “Chasing the Light.”

The films represent a natural progression from traditional storytelling, said Freeland, who grew up on the reservation and went to film school because she wanted to tell stories.

“You have all the traditional art forms – painting, weaving, pottery, silversmithing – that are all forms of storytelling,” she said. “Filmmaking combines all the other art forms into one. It’s another form of storytelling.”

Although gritty and sometimes controversial, “Drunktown’s Finest” shatters stereotypes and presents three-dimensional characters, Freeland said.

“I wanted to tell a story about the people and places I knew and give them a chance to be represented on screen,” she said. “I wanted to show how a reservation is a diverse and dynamic place. It was about giving people a chance to be heard and seen on screen, as they are, as human beings with flaws.”

When filming “Chasing the Light,” Lowe wanted to capture “everyday life for the 21st century Navajo man.”

“It’s just the usual Navajo type of living,” he said. “It’s just straight-up reality. It’s depression, heartache, drugs, friends. And it’s a comedy because all the funniest things are always the darkest thing ever.”

“Chasing the Light” is Lowe’s second feature-length film. He’s also showing a short film during the screening.

Nanobah Becker's film "The 6th World," in which Navajo astronauts journey to Mars, is part of "Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film." (Courtesy photo, Smithsonian Institution)

The showcase will include 16 additional short films shown in two sessions. Nanobah Becker will show three of her shorts, including a music video starring Navajo ballet dancer Jock Soto and a science fiction film about Navajo people on Mars. She’s looking forward to showing her films to a New York audience.

“In a city like New York, the exposure of Native films and Navajo culture is very limited,” she said. “It’s like the end of a journey to be able to show something to an audience and to feel like you’ve affected people in a certain way.”

With 14 filmmakers’ work showing in New York and countless others making films on the reservation, Becker believes the Navajo people are establishing a cinematic record that is unique to the tribe.

“We are creating our national cinema, just like any other country,” she said “We have radio and print, but this is the next frontier. We’re contributing to something bigger.”

Other filmmakers use existing footage to explore history. Shonie de la Rosa’s film “Yellow Dust” uses archived film footage of nuclear testing and traditional stories to compare two kinds of yellow powder: uranium and corn pollen.

The film took off in Europe long before it gained popularity in the United States, de la Rosa said. Although it’s more than a decade old, he’s pleased it’s making an appearance in New York.

“It’s a short film, it’s experimental,” he said. “It’s kind of something I just threw together, but it’s taken on a journey of its own.”

Another theme apparent in some of the films is future possibilities, said Teresa Montoya, a moderator for the screening and a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University. Several of the filmmakers use their medium to explore “forward-facing” ideas, including Becker’s film about a Navajo space program.

“It’s powerful to use creation stories to not just think about the past, but also the future,” Montoya said. “I think visual production gives Navajo the opportunity to write and dictate their own histories.” Baca calls this phenomenon “visual sovereignty.”

“We’re pushing all the boundaries in terms of making independent films,” he said. “This emerges as cultural and visual sovereignty. Everyone who does these projects does it all on their own, from beginning to end. Making film is an act of sovereignty.”

The other filmmakers whose work is included in the screening are Klee Benally, Princess Benally, Christi Bertelsen, Christopher Cegielski, Sarah del Seronde, Melissa Henry, Daniel Edward Hyde, Bennie Klain,Velma Kee Craig and Donavan Seschillie.

For more information on Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film, visit or call 212-514-3737.

© 2015 Navajo Times. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Navajo Times

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

March 27, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Joya de Cerén

In less than one month, Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the April 18 opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This first video looks at the Joya de Cerén World Heritage Archaeological Site

The village of Joya de Cerén, in what is today el Salvador, was abandoned more than 1,400 years ago, shortly before the eruption of Loma Caldera. Buried under volcanic ash, Joya de Cerén was preserved unusually well. The site has provided clues to the domestic life of the peoples of the area, as well as an excellent overview of early architectural practices. Many of the objects excavated there illuminate social structures as well, pointing to a culture whose people had a high quality of life, with a say in both the authority and trade systems within their communities.


Interested in knowing more about Joya de Cerén? Download the free exhibition catalogue and check out “Dwelling in the Ancestral Joya de Cerén Village,” beginning on page 23. 

—Joshua Stevens

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Cerámica de los: Central Ancestros America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

October 27, 2014

Glittering World: Case (Almost) Closed . . . .

By Joshua Stevens

The National Museum of the American Indian in New York is abuzz as the debut of Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family comes closer. A little less than three weeks before the exhibition opens to the public November 13, people behind the scenes are putting the final elements in place, bringing life to the sketches, blueprints, and mock-ups that designers worked tirelessly to perfect.

A visit to the museum’s East Gallery right now gives a vivid sense of just how stunning the exhibition will be. Vibrant colors of crimson and turquoise give a new personality to the space, almost as if visitors will walk into a life-sized piece of Navajo jewelry. It is also apparent that much more remains to be done as prep work continues in every corner of the gallery.

Standing out among all the work in progress is casework that will eventually hold hundreds of pieces of jewelry made by the Yazzies. It’s easy to be amazed by how much planning it takes for every single case. Each case is inscribed with numbers that categorize it and map what it will contain. The exhibition team—led by Peter Brill, assistant director for exhibitions and programs at the museum in New York—allowed a sneak peek at the construction of the exhibition environment. A few snapshots give a sense of things to come.

Encasements Waiting Encasement Application Wall Section

Left: Display cases sit below panels where they will eventually be hung. Top right: Peter Brill shows how a case front will be fitted to one of the wall panels. Above: Within the recesses of a panel, numbers encode a case's location and contents. 

RetailCase LightingExample

Top left: This unfinished panel will hold several of Lee Yazzie’s best-known expertly designed rings. Above: Cases have been designed to strike the perfect balance of controlled lighting and ambient light, bringing out the brilliance of the jewelry in the exhibition. Right: This case will showcase pieces in the Glittering World Gallery Store, where visitors will have the opportunity to purchase unique jewelry inspired by Navajo designs, as well as work by fine jewelers from other Native nations.

Glittering World
opens Thursday, November 13, at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, and will run until January 2016. The NMAI blog will continue to post exclusive behind-the-scenes content as the opening nears. You can also view the exhibition trailer and join the conversation with the museum on Facebook and Twitter, #GlitteringWorld. Let us know if there’s something you want to know! 

Photos by Joshua Stevens, NMAI.

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

October 03, 2014

Behind Every Great Object, There’s a Great Mount

By Joshua Stevens

The little things in life make all the difference, and those who work behind the scenes building the museum’s exhibitions know it all too well. Every small detail has an impact on a visitor’s experience, which translates to the success of an installation. Yet these details are also those that for many of us go unseen.

November approaches, and with it the unveiling of NMAI New York’s newest exhibition, Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family. Staff members across the museum and outside specialists are working to ensure that each piece in the exhibition shines flawlessly, telling the story not only of a family, but of a highly refined art form. 

Kelly McHugh, an NMAI conservator, shared photos from the museum’s Mount Shop showing the custom-made brass components that will be used to support the nearly 300 pieces of contemporary Navajo jewelry the exhibition contains—rings, bracelets, necklaces, and a variety of other jeweled accessories—as well as objects from the museum's collections that provide historical context. The snapshots below show the many different mounts the exhibition requires. Specific exhibit case numbers are written alongside the mounts on the ethafoam that supports them while they are in transit from the museum’s collections, conservation, and research facility in Maryland to the museum in New York. 

Glittering World object mounts 1

Glittering World object mounts 2Glittering World object mounts 3

Glittering World object mounts 4
Object mounts made by master mountmaker Bob Fuglestad and his colleagues Bill Mead, Bill Bowser, and Jon Pressler, and by the museum's staff mountmaker, Shelly Uhlir, for the exhbition Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family. The mounts were constructed at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Maryland, then grouped by exhibit case for installation at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Photos by Duane Blue Spruce, NMAI.

More than 350 mounts were made for Glittering World, most by master mountmaker Bob Fuglestad and his team of Bill Mead, Bill Bowser, and Jon Pressler. The museum's staff mountmaker, Shelly Uhlir, made a number of mounts, as well. Shelly describes what the project entailed:

The majority of the mounts are crafted from silver-soldered brass, which is then covered with multiple layers of acrylic coating to make sure the objects have a safe place to rest. Each mount is custom designed and fit specifically to each piece of jewelry, then painted to conceal the work. 

They are hand-made works of art in themselves, but the best mounts are the ones the viewer doesn’t easily see!

Glittering World debuts Thursday, November 13, at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and will run until January 2016. The NMAI blog will continue to post exclusive behind-the-scenes content as the opening nears. You can also view the exhibition trailer and join the conversation with the museum on Facebook and Twitter, #GlitteringWorld. Let us know if there’s something you want to know! 

Joshua Stevens is Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

September 03, 2014

Archaeology Fest—Get Hands-On with Native History at the Montauk Indian Museum

Archaeology Fest Poster

It’s not often one has the opportunity to spend a Saturday learning how to blow a dart or throw a spear, but the third annual Montauk Archaeology Fest, a free event hosted by the Montauk Indian Museum on Oct. 4, 2014, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., promises to offer this and more.

“Kids and adults love the hands-on activities,” said Lawrence Cooke, Montauk Indian Museum president and founder. “We have people travel from all over the country to participate in the events.”

Experts will be on site sharing expertise in many different areas, including:

  • Flint-knapping (stone tool manufacture) 
  • Fire-starting 
  • Tanning 
  • Earth-fired pottery making 
  • Wampum making 
  • Roasting/baking of Native foods

And much more!

“Every person finds their own interests, but many really like to try throwing the atlatls,” Mr. Cooke said.

The mission of the Montauk Indian Museum is to educate and enlighten the public regarding the long Native American history of the Montauk area. The museum is located at:

Montauk Highway & Second House Road 
Montauk, New York 11954

Directions: Take the Montauk Highway toward Montauk. Just before you enter town, the museum is on the left, slightly past the corner of Second House Road and Montauk Highway.

For more information, call (631) 903-9603 or visit A video of past Archaeology Fest activities can be viewed here.

—Joshua Stevens

Joshua Stevens is Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. 

Comments (2)

    » Post a Comment

What an excellent event this should be!
Would love to be able to come but I live in Seattle :(

What an interesting initiative, this will help the students to put their views and get to learn more from them.