Bearing Witness: Voices Of Climate Change Part V: Navajo Painter Reflects Changing Land Through Art

Jun 12, 2019

This week we're running a series of interviews called Bearing Witness: Voices of Climate Change. They're stories told by longtime Arizonans about changes they've seen in the familiar landscapes of their lives. While personal experience, in and of itself, is not scientific conclusion, many researchers believe long-term observation is a critical component to understanding how climage change affects humanity and the planet. Today, we hear from artist Shonto Begay, who paints unique landscapes of his home on the Navajo Nation. He says climate and weather patterns there used to be well-defined. But now, watering holes once brimming with rain are filled with sand, and Begay says he can no longer smell storms coming. His art reflects the changing climate of his beloved home. 

Flagstaff-based artist Shonto Begay grew up on the Navajo Nation and paints unique landscapes of his changing home
Credit KNAU/Ryan Heinsius

I’m Shonto Begay, I’m a painter here in Flagstaff from the Navajo Nation, from Shonto, Arizona. That’s where I come from. I am Todichiinii clan. Salt Clan. Many Goats Clan, maternally, grandparent, grandfather. And paternal  Tsinigine.I grew up in a valley in the Shonto area, between Shonto and Black Mesa. I grew up in that wide swathe of valley. That was my whole world.... I grew up a shepherd, I spent many days being out there. These are the days that you knew what the earth and the elements were saying. You smell a dust storm a day away, as well as the rain. You know the messages of the cloud storms, shaping, forming in the summertime. This is what I grew up with, everything really well defined. It seems like nowadays everything is kind of fading. It seems like it’s fading…. The winter ice, the winter freezing, the spring freezing, these don’t really occur anymore…. Days are hotter, the winds are stronger.

Last year the heat, combined by the wind, out on the reservation, for the first time ever in my home area, I was concerned, seriously, about wildfire. Everything was so dry, hot, the wind was relentless. This is something you’re aware of, there’s nothing that defines in words exactly what it is, but a lot of it is the feeling of changes all about you.

Occasionally I do calm a lot of my own misgivings or concerns or paranoia, whatever you call it, fears—a lot of times I encounter those by directly painting them. Not literally, maybe something alluding to that. This is why I paint my landscape, the place I was born, the way I remember it, how the hogans and the village was composed, the sheep camp, the sheep corral, the hogan, the brush arbor, the wood pile, the outhouse. These are all the composition of a sheep camp.

Some of those pools in the summertime don’t fill no more, because they’re filled with sand…. But it is still like that in my mind. It is still like that in my mind. I walk the land sometimes and reminiscence about how and where things were, and the sacred space I call home, where I was raised in Shonto. I painted this as a raven, as an eagle, would see it from above after the passing rainstorm, when all the water holes that were there—some of them are still there—when all the water holes were filled with rainwater and the earth was wet with rain, and everything was clean and washed off, the dust was washed off the leaves. This is how I see it, this is setting your heart in a clean space again.