CAMERON, Ariz. -James Peshlakai defies any one description. He has been known as story teller, leader, healer, educator - and entertainer - to name only a few. Now he adds another title to that list - recording artist.
Peshlakai didn't exactly set out to record a CD - in fact, one might say he was tricked into it by his friend Tony Duncan, who produced the album.
"When I worked for Greyhills High School, I helped sponsor the Indian Club," Peshlakai said, easing into the telling. "We started doing traditional dances - before that the Indian Club was mostly doing powwow dancing. I had to relearn the Navajo Traditional Dance songs."
When he was younger, Peshlakai attended ceremonies, but as he reached adulthood, he stopped except for the occasional Night Way or Enemy Way. Helping with the Indian Club meant a return to ceremonial songs for Peshlakai.
"When my daughter went to school in Colorado, I asked if we could bring the Indian Club there to perform. It took us two months to get ready for that trip. We made hoops and other paraphernalia - the Hopi kids had their stuff together, but the Navajo kids had to make a lot. The night before we left, we put on a premier performance and invited the community. People came to me and asked, 'James, do you still remember those songs?'"
That is how his singing career began - he took his Indian Club all over the reservation - to parades and other events. They performed at halftime shows for Northern Arizona University football and basketball games, the Heard Museum, Coconino County Fair and the Winslow Christmas parade. The Club even performed in Vegas.
"I ended up producing pow wows and several traditional Enemy Way ceremonies," said Peshlakai. "People said I had a nice singing voice. I was asked to record, but I never got around to it."
Peshlakai, a proud, doting grandfather, agreed to record several songs for his grandchildren.
Peshlakai and his dance troupe accepted an invitation to perform the International Conference of Pediatricians in Albuquerque, N.M. on March 6. Over 500 doctors from around the world attended. James decided to invite his younger grandchildren to perform.
Some of the youngsters lived in Phoenix, and his daughters asked him to record the songs so that the children could practice.
Peshlakai enlisted the assistance of Duncan, a five-time World Hoop Dance Champion, to make the recording.
When Peshlakai arrived, he learned that Duncan had an album in mind.
"'Now James, before you sing the songs, explain them, like Paul Ortega does.'" Peshlakai quoted Duncan. "We got started and that's how I ended up recording 'Songs of the Navajo.'"
It is an attractive album - featuring paintings by James King - one is a portrait of Peshlakai, and the other is a painting entitled "Back on Top on the South Kaibab."
Most of the songs on the CD were composed by Peshlakai; his grandsons and former Indian Club members are also credited on some of the numbers.
Peshlakai composed the first song for his grandsons Devander, Devon and Tanner, who performed with their grandfather at the Dinner Theatre at the Grand Hotel in Tusayan.
The boys were making their own money, Peshlakai said; the song honors that.
"This song, this song will be mine. Beautifully I am going to dance. Money is going to be mine - soft goods, hard goods and gems," Peshlakai translated. "It has a soft beat, and is good for the grass dance and hoop dance."
"Butterfly Song" was also composed at the Grand Hotel to educate visitors about the Navajo Way.
"Insects were the first group of people to live on our earth, to sing and dance," Peshlakai said.
Peshlakai recognized the encouragement of many of his friends, including Jay Begaye, James Bilagody, Radmilla Cody, Delphine Tsinniginnie, Clarence Clearwater, Bobby Greely and Franklin Kahn.
"Songs of the Navajo" is available for $20 per CD. Interested parties may contact Peshlakai by e-mail at email@example.com.