Native Arts | Baje Whitehorn Sr.


By Dottie Indyke

Baje Whitethorn Sr. loved summer nights when he was young, when he and his brothers and sisters would sit out under the stars that looked down on nearby mesas and valleys and listen to his shepherd grandmother tell the many stories she had listened to when she was young. The mountains in the distance would flicker with the moonlight, and their shapes seemed to move against the sky as she spoke of heroes, legends, and their homeland, her hand sweeping across the nocturnal landscape. “She told us the hills would dance for us,” Whitethorn says. And he believed her, just as he believed in something that he couldn’t then describe but that he would later call his “Navajo-ness.”

“From sunup to sundown, it was something you lived,” he says. “There was harmony and balance. You did your best with what little you had, and you didn’t realize it was a little. It was enough that we had a house—we had no need for money in our pockets. We were who we were.”

Whitethorn, today a nationally acclaimed Native American artist and children’s book author, also sees himself as a historian and an educator. He wants to help those who didn’t grow up with their roots to learn about and feel them, and he is sometimes amazed at the results. Art-lovers who view his work in galleries in France and Germany have traveled to his home near Flagstaff, AZ, and recognized him on sight. They tell him they have come to see the spirit and the essence of Navajo country after feeling that connection through his artwork.

Growing up on the reservation in northeastern Arizona, Whitethorn inherited an interest in art from his mother, an expert rug weaver who sold her creations at the nearest trading post in Shonto. He also learned from his four older brothers, who were constantly drawing the horses his father kept on their land, along with cattle and sheep. Whitethorn first started sketching when he was 5, and he continued to pursue art through his years at the government boarding school, where dormitory supervisors would give him drawing paper, ideas, and encouragement. He took a few art classes in high school and at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix but never had the formal art training his high school and college teachers recommended for him as they applauded his work.

Those words of support would come back to Whitethorn at a pivotal time in 1986, when he was given the choice of retiring from his job testing nuclear reactors in Phoenix or relocating to a lucrative position in Argentina. His wife, Priscilla, with whom he has four children, said no to the move. Whitethorn didn’t want to go, either. “But then all those words, all those people who encouraged me, who said, ‘One of these days, you’re going to do well with your artwork’—all of them came flooding back to me,” Whitethorn says.

“It was like I was on a platform in the middle of the ocean, and I decided I was going to jump in,” he said. “Nobody knew me, but I was going to try.” While he was wrestling with this idea, Priscilla posed a poignant question: “Who’s going to pay you?” “I don’t know,” Whitethorn replied.

Success, however, came quickly. He painted landscapes of the mountains, mesas, and sunsets near his home and sold them for $75 each. As interest in his painting grew, the price of his paintings doubled, then doubled again. Galleries sought him out, and the prices catapulted further upward. “I wanted to celebrate the day I got $1,000 for a painting, but things were so busy it had already happened before I realized it,” he says.

Whitethorn began writing and illustrating children’s books in 1990 with Sunpainters: Eclipse of the Navajo Sun, a colorful book about occurrences in nature and learning respect for the Earth from them. It was reprinted by Salinas Bookshelf Inc. of Flagstaff this April, and a printing in Navajo will be out soon. Whitethorn also illustrated some of the Native American legends that he heard from his grandmother, including those of the Monster Birds, Monster Slayer, Kika, and the Raven. Whitethorn is currently traveling the country to promote his sixth book, Father’s Boots, which is printed in English and Navajo. In 1998, the Arizona Library Association named him Outstanding Contributor to Children’s Literature.

Featured in August 2002