It’s a long way from San Francisco to the Navajo Nation, both in miles and culture.
As a young woman living in California, Brenda Beck met and married a young Navajo Medicine Man. They spent time traveling between their different cultures and Brenda took part in and was trained to perform some ceremonies.
One of her teachers was her husband’s uncle, Dudley Yazzie, who turned the page on 100 years this summer. Yazzie is a revered Medicine Man known by most of the healers on the Navajo Nation. He is a man who has seen the Navajo people and the nation go through many changes.
When Brenda and her husband divorced, they and his family remained close. Their daughter was raised with an appreciation of both cultures and her Kinaaldá (Coming of Age Ceremony) was chronicled in a book written by Brenda.
When Brenda married Tom Wohlmut, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and moved to Santa Fe, an idea was born. They decided, after talking with Dudley and others, to start the Diné Elders Project, which would focus on making video recordings of Dudley and other Navajo Elders to preserve their stories and the traditional Ceremonies of the Navajo.
For those of you who are fans of Tony and Anne Hillerman’s books, you know that Navajo ceremonies are not written down. They are passed from Medicine Man to Medicine Man (and Medicine Women).
Over the years, many of the stories and ceremonies have been lost. Back in the early part of this century, Hosteen Klah, a Navajo Medicine Man, decided to create Navajo rugs depicting Ceremonial Sand Paintings. He performed special protection ceremonies for himself and his sisters as these designs were not supposed to be created in permanent form. Today, most of them are in the Wheelwright Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe. They are available to scholars and Medicine Men for study. Had Klah not done this, they would likely have been lost in time.
Dudley Yazzie feels the same way about recording the stories and the ceremonies that he knows.
During the pandemic, Brenda and Tom rented a motor home and traveled to the reservation to record Dudley. They made hours of wonderful videos and, watching the recording process, his relatives shared that he told stories of the Navajo people they had never heard. This is the beginning of an archive that can be shared with the world to preserve the history and culture of the Navajo people.
I was asked to be on the advisory board of the project and, realizing I have no advice to give, I feel that the best way I can help is to spread the word about this project. It is going to take quite a bit of money to complete it. It will be ongoing and may never be totally finished! For Tom and Brenda, this is a work of love and respect. It is not the kind of project that ever makes any money.
Please don’t miss watching this video of one of the first recordings with Dudley and if you feel this is something you would like to support, Brenda and Tom appreciate your help! This project is supported by the New Mexico Film Foundation.