Southwest: Latter-day Saint Native American Art, Sacred Connections


The Navajo and Hopi Indians of the southwestern United States have a rich heritage of art. Much of the art created by Latter-day Saint Native American artists shows the influence of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the life of the artist. It is a sacred connection that the Navajo of northern New Mexico and Arizona describe as hozho. Hozho encompasses everything considered “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” (see A of F 1:13). Hozho is a life in balance with God, with nature, and with one’s fellowmen. Navajo artist Harrison Begay says, “As a Latter-day Saint, I find that the best place to be immersed in hozho is in the temple.”

The Hopi Indians of northeastern Arizona believe that the name of their tribe signifies that they worship the Creator. “We are living on consecrated land,” says one Hopi artist. “We believe that the Lord gave us this land in trust and that we must someday make an accounting to him for it.”

A selection of art by Latter-day Saint Navajo and Hopi artists is shown in these pages. Many of the artists represented here also have a lifetime of service in the Church as spiritual leaders in their communities.

“An artist can take objects that do not have life in them, and by using various artistic techniques, create a composition that does. Whether the composition is realistic or abstract, two-dimensional or three-dimensional, it comes alive.

“If I were asked to give my advice to Latter-day Saint artists everywhere, I would tell them to first live the gospel of Jesus Christ to its fullest. We shouldn’t create works for our own glory, but for the glory of God. If we do receive recognition for our work, we must never forget that our talent came from our Heavenly Father.”

William Hatch, Navajo painter

“I made a pot depicting the three degrees of glory [see D&C 76]. I based the design on traditional Kiva Indian murals and paintings that told a similar story. I think our ancestors must have known the story as part of their heritage.

“When I’m creating pottery, I am able to call upon that heritage and yet not lose my Latter-day Saint principles.

“I compare my development as a member of the Church to the sanding and polishing that goes into perfecting a piece of pottery. Sometimes I think I get ‘sanded’ and ‘polished’ as I strive for perfection. In the final stages of creation, the pot is purified by fire; the day will come when the whole earth will be purified by fire.”

Les Namingha, potter

“Native Americans of the Southwest have a rich cultural heritage. Their values and their way of life, reflected in their art, is closely aligned with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This sacred connection strengthens family bonds and enriches the quality of life.

“There are many beautiful beliefs in Southwest Indian culture that are also part of the gospel. Some of these beliefs include a reverence for the Creator, a love of family, and a family bond that extends to those who have gone before and those yet to come.

“I think it very important that we create art in companionship with the Spirit, so that art leads us to raise our eyes to the Creator.”

John P. Rainer Jr., flute maker and musician

“In the beginning, the earth was created in spiritual beauty. The stars and the firmament were brought together, and the sun was made to light the day, the moon to light the night. All was created in beauty.

“The ‘old ones,’ my ancestors, long ago prayed that they might walk in beauty. I inherited that desire. It means that I strive to walk in beauty, to walk in happiness, and to walk with care and consideration for others. I try to live righteously and think good thoughts. By so doing I will enjoy hozho.”

Leta Keith, Navajo weaver

Tawa Kachina

Tawa Kachina, coiled plaque, weaver unknown. Representing the sun, this Hopi plaque is woven from yucca plant leaves. Traditionally, plaques were distributed as wedding gifts.

Rain and Hail

Rain and Hail, 1978, sand painting on a board by Christine Allen. Anciently, sand paintings were created for use in religious ceremonies.

Wedding Vase

Wedding Vase, 1983, fired clay by Helen Naha. The vase’s two drinking spouts, one for the bride and one for the groom, symbolize their joining and sharing together in a new life.

Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life

Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life, 1994, fired clay by Tammy Garcia. The artist’s pots are formed by layers of coiled clay smoothed to form a surface into which the pattern is carved. The completed piece is polished with a stone. “Lehi’s vision is about life and the decisions we make,” says Sister Garcia. “We must choose whether to follow the Savior or to follow Satan.”

Migration Pattern Pot

Migration Pattern Pot, 1952, by Fannie Nampeyo Polacca, depicts the final Hopi Indian migration to northern Arizona. Hopi legend tells of their ancestors crossing the sea in reed boats to settle in a warm country somewhere south of Arizona.

The Conversion of Tom Polacca

The Conversion of Tom Polacca, by Thomas Polacca. Thomas depicts his grandfather’s spiritual odyssey and baptism. The feather issuing from Tom’s mouth is the Hopi symbol of prayer.

Storm Pattern Rug

Storm Pattern Rug, 1980, by Rose Keith. The square in the center represents the home, or hogan. It is touched by lightning emanating from each of four mountains sacred in Navajo tradition. The lightning symbolizes the blessings of rain in a desert environment.

Ganado-style Navajo Rug

Ganado-style Navajo Rug, 1991, by Elnora Teasyat. The Navajo values of hozho—beauty and dynamic energy, coupled with balance and self-control—are evident in this intricately woven rug. Following the Ganado style, the weaver creates mirrored diamond shapes using predominantly gray and black wool, with red wool for a background.

Three Degrees of Glory

Three Degrees of Glory, 1991, necklace by Phil Sekaquaptewa. The sun, moon, and stars on the silver feather are said by the artist to represent glories in man’s afterlife. The central shaft of the feather also represents the highest kingdom. The artist used lapis lazuli to represent a lower kingdom and coral to represent the lowest kingdom.

Missionaries on the Reservation

Missionaries on the Reservation, 1985, hand-spun wool rug by Leta Keith. Latter-day Saint missionaries were first assigned to the southwestern United States in 1854 by Brigham Young. Sister Keith depicts modern-day missionaries in the sandstone environment of Monument Valley, Arizona, where she and her family live.

Ute Family

Ute Family, 1994, sculpted in Utah alabaster by Oreland Joe. “The American Indian has always been family-oriented. In this sculpture, the man wears a robe, signifying a leadership role. By his side is his wife with their baby. We love and respect newborn children because there is something special about their coming to the earth.”

Corn Pot

Corn Pot, 1994, ceramic by Iris Youvella Nampeyo. A member of the Hopi Corn Clan, Iris carries on a family tradition of fine pottery learned from her mother, Fannie, and her grandmother, Nampeyo. Corn is not only food, but is also an important symbol to the Hopi. They teach their children to walk a path as straight as a row of corn is planted.

The Plan of Salvation

The Plan of Salvation, 1994, fired clay by Shirley Ben. Sister Ben became reactivated in the Church as she read the Book of Mormon following her son’s death. The pot represents the Lord’s plan of happiness.

[photos] Information and photographs for this article courtesy of the Museum of Church History and Art. Except as noted, all photographs are by Ronald Read

[photo] Hopi potters use natural materials close at hand. Clay is collected from the hills. Plants are boiled for paint. Yucca leaves are used to make brushes. Gourds are raised for scraping tools. And, in a treeless environment, sheep dung is collected to fire the pots.

Creating Indian art binds generations together, as it does in the Nampeyo family. Nampeyo, seen below in an 1895 photograph by Edward Curtis, was a skilled potter whose descendants still show her respect by signing their works with Nampeyo as part of their surname. (Courtesy Smithsonian Institution.)

[photo] Photograph by Howard Rainer

[photo] Photograph of Window Rock, Arizona, the traditional center of the Navajo nation. (Photograph by Reed D. Miller.)

[photo] Photograph by Michael McConkie