Tribute to the ancestors

Adversity, accomplishment inspired Indian Market best-of-show winner

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 3, 2009

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(Special to the Times - Angie Schaas)

Darryl Dean Begay of Round Rock, Ariz., holds the belt, "Return From the Long Walk," that he and his wife, Rebbeca, designed and created and that won best of show at the 88th annual Santa Fe Indian Market on Aug. 21.

If Darryl Dean Begay's great-grandfather, Deschiinii Sani, had not returned from Hwééldi (Place of Suffering), his descendent wouldn't be here.

And so could not have won best of show at the 88th Annual Santa Fe Indian Market two weeks ago.

As it is, the silver concho belt created by Darryl and his wife Rebecca became the first piece of jewelry to take the top award in many years.

Deschiinii Sani and other survivors of the Navajos' four-year internment at Fort Sumner, N.M., gave them the theme for their entry, titled "Return From the Long Walk."

Altogether, the belt has 15 conchos, each 3 inches high, and the buckle. Twelve of the conchos are human figures, each with a piece of turquoise set in the face. The single set of turquoise is Begay's artistic signature.

"And like my grandpa use to say, you're suppose to have a piece of turquoise with you so the Holy Ones recognize you," said Darryl, who is Yé'ii dine'é Táchii'nii (Giant People division of the Red Running into Water Clan), born for Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle Clan).

Together the conchos tell the story of the Navajos' return from Hwééldi. The buckle shows a Navajo man walking west and leading a young girl, her mother, grandmother, and two children riding a horse. The grandmother carries a baby in a cradleboard on her back.

In the background is the sacred mountain Tsoodzil, which marks the southernmost point of Dinétah, the land given to the Navajos by the Holy Ones. There is also a Rainbow Yé'ii (Holy One), and petroglyphs on the ground where the people are walking. The rock art represents prayers, Begay said.

The extensive detail, textured surfaces and dense symbolism are characteristic of Begay's jewelry, which is carried at galleries throughout the Southwest.

Each intricately detailed concho was created from a cast carved in tufa stone, which is made of compressed volcanic ash. The technique ensures one-of-a-kind creations, because the stone is destroyed as the silver casting is freed.

Darryl, who is from Round Rock, Ariz., learned the art of tufa casting from his uncle, Bobby Begay, and also credits Raymond C. Yazzie and Myron Panteah as major influences as he worked to develop his own style over the past decade.

Three years ago, his wife Rebecca joined in, and now both are creating art full-time from their studio in Gallup.

Together they have taken tufa casting, one of the oldest jewelry techniques used by the Navajos, to new heights of artistic expression. It's a difficult technique to master but the use of tufa imbues each jewelry piece with a unique pebbled texture.

A passion for art

The Begays are expert at giving the texture from tufa casting a key role in their designs, which have won a number of prestigious awards - last year a sterling silver seed pot by Rebecca won best of jewelry and best miniature awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Their work is also starting to appear in serious books on Native art, such as  "Southwestern Indian Jewelry: Crafting New Traditions" by Dexter Cirillo (Rizzoli, 2008).

The theme of this year's winner at the Santa Fe Indian Market reflects their deep faith in the ability of Navajo people to transform adversity into accomplishment.

"The Long Walk was a very traumatic experience and people are still suffering today," Begay said. "And of course, after the Long Walk came the boarding schools, which traumatized our uncles and aunts in the same way.

"But," he added, "some of us have studied it. And we got educated in both ways, Navajo and Western, to cope with these tragedies. So that's why we have Navajo people that are accomplished in their careers.

"This belt is about getting that message out in 2009," he emphasized. "We are still here. We have still have our culture, our language. And that means anything is possible and that we must set high goals for ourselves."

The line of conchos begins and ends with warrior figures, one modern, one ancient. The first concho is a Marine in combat fatigues, wearing a helmet and carrying his weapon. The other warrior carries a spear and shield. His leather cap with two feathers shows that he is from the time before the bilagáanas.

The second concho depicts pro golfer Notah Begay (no relation to Darryl) as he finishes a graceful swing of his club. Next is Major League outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, followed by a Navajo Code Talker in action in World War II.

The fifth concho figure is a code talker of today, shown in old age because they have become "living treasures of this country," Begay said.

The code talkers are given particular prominence in the design because "they saved thousands and thousands of lives. That's how big of a deal they are and they are our own people."

The sixth and fourteenth concho figures represent male and female ancestors dressed as Navajos did before the arrival of Europeans.

Etched on the silver loops that hold the conchos on their leather strap, and only visible from the back, are the Navajo words for "our ancestors," nihichooni and nihizázii.

The seventh figure is a mother carrying a baby in a cradleboard. Her hair is tied in tsííyeel (traditional bun) and she is dressed as Navajos did once they began to utilize manufactured cloth like velveteen and satin.

Begay said the woman represents iiná (life) and the baby represents the next generation.

The eighth concho figure is a woman sitting at a loom on which a half-finished rug is mounted. Within the 3-inch format is detail right down to the warp strings, wooden comb in the weaver's hand, the concho on her belt, and the yarn in a basket at her side.

Darryl said they included the weaver because Navajos are world-famous for their rugs - Navajo weaver Sarah Paul Begay won best of show at the Santa Fe Indian Market in 2006. Among his relatives, including his grandmother and aunts, are many weavers, he said.

Honoring grandmothers

The ninth figure, a female sheepherder, represents his and Rebecca's grandmothers, who both died this year.

"This belt was a tribute to our grandmothers," Darryl said. "And mine, Mary Ann Begay, she's the one that laid the foundation through prayers for my silversmithing. So you know her prayers were answered."

The figure is dressed in a long-sleeved blouse, multi-tiered skirt and moccasins. Her hair is tied in a tsííyeel and she carries a walking stick. In her other hand are two empty cans tied to a string, a homemade noisemaker used to persuade naughty sheep.

Darryl recalled his grandmother throwing the cans in front of the sheep to make them turn.

The tenth concho depicts a woman holding a large Navajo wedding basket of unusual design. Darryl said he was taught that every home should have wedding basket because it contains healing and blessing prayers, and he wanted to honor the basket makers.

Inside the basket a rainbow encircles the four sacred mountains. Outside the rainbow are tiny figures depicting the Holy Ones.

The 11th concho is a cowboy modeled on Rebecca's late father. The face and bolo tie are turquoise. The cowboy's boots are embossed with an eagle, wings outstretched.

Darryl recalled his uncle Bobby's stories of Navajo men who left the reservation to work for the railroad in the 1950s and '60s, returning home wearing fancy boots and gloves.

"We have a lot of cowboys on the rez and they are pretty well known for their rodeo skills," he added.

The next two conchos are a tribute to Darryl's silversmithing ancestors, Beshlagai il'ini Altsosigi (Slender Maker of Silver) and his half-brother Atsidi Sani (Old Smith), who was reportedly the first Navajo silversmith.

Darryl said he and Rebecca planned and researched the "Return From the Long Walk" belt for two years.

"We worked hard and it paid off," he said.

After winning best of show, the couple sold their belt to a buyer from Texas.

He declined to name the price, but said, "It was a good sale, enough to pay bills, catch up and stay ahead."

To see other examples of the Begays' jewelry, visit the Web sites of galleries that carry it, including,,,,,, and


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