Photographer Don Jones spends year documenting Navajos

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) July 2010

The single-cab pickup truck rumbled to a stop on the side of the highway. Without any words or hand gestures, the old Navajo man waited for Don James to jump into the back.

The wind started to swirl as the truck picked up speed through Narbona Pass and over the Chuska Mountains. This would be a ride the young hitchhiker would never forget.

A Navajo photographer who grew up in reservation towns in Arizona and New Mexico, James spent a year traveling the Navajo Nation with one goal. He wanted to document what it’s really like to be Navajo. He wanted the world to know there’s more behind his people than what’s portrayed by a century of iconic but stereotypical images that show Navajos praying in the morning sun at the edge of Monument Valley.

More than 100,000 photographs and 10,000 miles later, he captured it all – the high school basketball games, the softball tournaments, weddings, weekend motorcycle rides, ice fishing, the long trips to the watering hole for those without running water and community cookouts on open-fire grills.

“I wanted to show an actual, up-to-date portrait of who Navajos really are and the broad spectrum in between. There’s Notah Begay III, the professional golfer, down to sheep herders,” James, 27, told The Associated Press in an interview. “I wanted a true image of who we are as Navajos.”

The culmination of James’ year hitchhiking around the Navajo Nation – the country’s largest American Indian reservation at more than 27,000 square miles – is the book “One Nation, One Year.” His first book signing was Wednesday evening in Albuquerque.

James packed up the bare essentials – some clothes, a towel, a tent, an ice chest and his camera gear – and headed out on Feb. 4, 2008.

He lived on $100 a week, sleeping in his own truck, showering whenever he could, eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches and searching for cheap coffee.

He had no course charted across the desolate reservation, where communities are far and few in between and many homes are without electricity and running water. Mobile phone service is out of the question in some areas.

He admitted he was scared at first. His mom was, too.

What if he got beaten up or lost? Or something worse?

navajo_photographer-1.jpg“All these doubts were in my mind. I was freaking out,” he said. “I went into the project thinking that, and a couple of months passed and I realized how vast and how big the reservation is and yet it feels small because there’s a feeling of comfort in knowing you’re part of a big group, a family.”

James, who has a bachelor’s of fine arts and works as a photographer for Albuquerque The Magazine, said American Indians have fascinated photographers since the invention of the camera, and plenty of books have been published about them, but none the way James sees them.

Being an insider, he said he was able to look past the stereotypes.

“There are different lifestyles, different hobbies, different incomes, they’re just regular people,” he said of Navajos.

There’s Derrick Begay, the shy rodeo star; Joe Vandever Sr., a Navajo Code Talker who lives in Haystack, N.M.; the buddies in Whippoorwill, Ariz., who play golf on a makeshift course carved into the weed-choked terrain near their homes; the young couples who are busy preparing for their Navajo weddings; the kids who ride their bikes in Window Rock, Ariz., and the grandmothers who tend their sheep in remote parts of the reservation.

After spending time with strangers and relatives across the reservation, James said the duality of the Navajo lifestyle became apparent.

“Navajos have to compete with Western culture. They have to compete with Facebook, iPods, Starbucks. They have to live in this world and then they have to live back on the reservation and keep their traditions and language and family values. ... We’re strong enough and smart enough to keep all that alive and we know what is a perfect blend of that and this and this and that.”

His favorite photo in the book provides the perfect example – Urina Bitcinnie listening to her friend’s iPod while planting corn, a Navajo tradition that spans generations.

There are also images of the community horse rides that cross through the shadows of the reservation’s towering sandstone cliffs and through its barren desert valleys.

And finding these places isn’t for the faint of heart.

“Reservation directions, they’re not the same,” James explained, remembering the directions a woman gave him for getting to a horse camp near Monument Valley. “You have to turn at the tire, you take a right at the dead dog, then you see that tree that’s shaped like a woman’s face and you take another left there.”

With the sun long gone and miles of dusty road under his belt, he managed to find the spot.

The 365-day journey was as much about revealing the “true spirit” of his people as it was about exploring that unfamiliar dirt road and learning to be frugal and humble.

“I realized what’s important in this world – what’s a want, what’s a need and what needs to be treasured,” James said.

The other important realization came to him in the back of that pickup truck as he was being taken through the Chuska Mountains. He remembered the air was fresh and the landscape was gorgeous. He felt free.

“I realized I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I was on top of the world at the moment. I saw the landscape around me, and I thought this is why we went to war and fought for the land and why we always had battles with the government. At that moment, I understood why. It’s so wonderful out there.”