Indigenous voices resonate: Navajo painter commissioned by Grand Canyon for new podcast logo
Grand Canyon’s new podcast includes interviews from park’s 11 associated tribes
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon Conservancy have collaborated to present a brand-new podcast, Grand Canyon Speaks, a program that is centered around Native American voices who call the canyon home.
Navajo painter Janet Yazzie was commissioned by the Grand Canyon to design a logo for the new podcast which launched Nov. 3.
Early last month, Yazzie brought her completed logo to the Grand Canyon Conservancy office in Flagstaff to hand off to Grand Canyon Ranger Daniel Pawlak, host of the podcast and who also runs the cultural demonstration program at the park.
Yazzie has a podcast episode, as well as Hopi painter Gerald Dewavendewa, Zuni potter Noreen Simplicio, Grammy-nominated Navajo musician Aaron White, Hopi carver and toy-maker Aaron White and students from the Zuni Youth Enrichment Program.
“It’s pretty big,” Yazzie said. “I’ve never had a commission that huge before. So I’m pretty excited about it.”
The Flagstaff artist started painting as a hobby years ago, but never took it seriously until recently, working in retail, at the Flagstaff hospital and schools.
“And then I was like, you know, I should paint again,” Yazzie said. “So I started and I threw myself in it and I just did it full time. And everything started opening up for me.”
Yazzie was a little overwhelmed when she first got the call from Pawlak saying the Grand Canyon wanted to commission her, as she had multiple art shows coming up and was designing some pieces for charity.
“Knowing me…I don’t know why I do this to myself. It could have just been one piece, I say, ‘oh I can do three,’” Yazzie laughed.
Yazzie couldn’t say no to the Grand Canyon, and she said it helped that Pawlak knew exactly what he wanted for the logo.
“For a podcast to be successful you have to have a recognizable image to go along with it,” Pawlak said. “We wanted an image to hopefully try to represent as many tribes as possible and be recognizable for Grand Canyon to make sure that it is a tribal podcast, that it is Indigenous voices that are coming across it.”
The Grand Canyon has a popular image in its archives of the confluence, where the blue-green Colorado River and turquoise-colored Little Colorado River join from the northeast rim, which many say is one of the best views of the Canyon.
“We looked at it and were like, the confluence speaks to so many people, the river speaks to so many people, and we’re like, okay, that’s a great place to start,” Pawlak said. “But then, how do you make a podcast…what about a microphone..and to really kind of wrap it up as like, this is an Indigenous podcast, what’s a universal?…feathers are a big piece that can tie people together.
The final 24” by 24” that Yazzie created has the red rock Canyon walls with the rivers joining in the background, and then an oval with an old-fashioned microphone and three feathers in front.
“So we have the macaw, the turkey feather and the eagle feather that are all used in cultures to this very day,” Pawlak said.
Macaw feathers are found in archaeological sites in the Grand Canyon, Pawlak said, and the fact that macaws were bred in the Four Corners regions shows there were trade routes long ago. Ancestral Puebloans made turkey feather blankets, an eagles have a huge place in tribal culture.
A fan first
Pawlak met Yazzie at a winter bazaar and fell in love with her work, and convinced her to be a cultural demonstrator at the Canyon. When she came out to the South Rim in May, Pawlak ended up personally buying one of her pieces. Yazzie’s depiction of the Desert Watch Tower hangs in his house.
“It was a treat to myself,” Pawlak laughed. “Through the program it really helped enlighten me like what’s out there, and different styles that are out there as well.”
Pawlak had a ring commissioned in 2017 by a Hopi artist, and a pin made for his uniform which he wears every day. The design has an arrowhead with the Hopi symbol for friendship inside of it, which he says represents the tribes coming together with the park service.
“I just get to appreciate (art) all the time because the cultural demonstrations are a year-round program, and we get world-class artists that come through, and we get to interact, become friends with them and see how their growing, and see what they’re doing with their lives,” Pawlak said. “So it’s more than just art now.”
As a demonstrator, Yazzie painted on canvas while visitors from all over the world asked her questions about her art, culture and life.
“I brought all my canvases that I was going to work on, I had like three of them, but I did not even finish one,” Yazzie laughed.
Yazzie remembers a group of visitors from Germany who had no idea about the Navajo, and loved trying to sound out some of the Dine language that Yazzie shared with them.
“Painting and talking made my day go faster,” Yazzie said. “And then next thing you know, three days was already done.”
Yazzie’s travel and housing was paid for for the three nights she was there by the Grand Canyon Conservancy, the non-profit that serves to preserve and protect the Canyon. She was also able to sell her artwork while she was there.
The Conservancy and Pawlak work together to bring artists from the 11 associated tribes of the Grand Canyon to the site, and estimate they have worked with around 200 Indigenous artists since the program started in 2014.
“If we start looking at numbers alone, it is Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes that are the primary demonstrators,” Pawlak said. “We have not been able to work with everybody. That is one of the goals.”
Pawlak said it has been harder to get demonstrators from some of the smaller, more distant tribes, but he is excited that they have been able to work with artists from the San Juan Southern Piute tribe this year.
“Our guestimate is we are a little north of $1 million of impact going back directly into the communities for the past nine years,” citing the fact that artists can sell their work while there as an aside.
Besides visual artists, there have been clothing designers, moccasin makers, musicians, drum makers, dancers, storytellers and even experts explaining things like cultural appropriation and ecological knowledge.
“The program is really open to not just art,” Pawlak said. “It’s open to anybody who wants to come here and talk about their experiences, their culture, and share their stories in their own voice. That’s what the program is really about. And the artistic side I think is a bonus.”
Pawlak hopes to expand the program further. The Desert View Watchtower has been where the demonstrators have been, and it is currently going through changes to become the cultural center of the park, with an Inter-tribal welcome center being built, pathways revamped and more.
There was also a pilot program with demonstrators at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center which Pawlak says really well, and they are trying it out on the North Rim as well.
“My idea is to have Desert View, North Rim and Grand Canyon Village (demonstrators) all operating at the same time, especially during the summer,” Pawlak said.
The cultural demonstrators program has been so successful, that Pawlak said he has talked to superintendents from Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton and other national parks around the country who want to set up something similar.
Visit grandcanyon.org for more on the cultural demonstrator program. Listen to “Grand Canyon Speaks” podcast at nps.gov/podcasts/grand-canyon-speaks.htm.
Yazzie will be the featured artist at Twin Arrows Casino Nov. 24. She will do a virtual presentation for Coconino County’s Native American Heritage Month celebration Nov. 29.