NAVAJO: Portrait of a Nation photography by...

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NAVAJO: Portrait of a Nation photography by Joel Grimes, text by Betty Reid (Westcliffe: $45 cloth, $24.95 paper; 192 pp.) . There is a rough translation of Belagaana , the term by which the Navajos refer to whites: “The people we’re always fighting with.”

The term attests to the great mistrust with which many Navajos regard whites and their culture. For older people steeped in tribal lore, the brutalities inflicted by the U.S. Cavalry during the Navajo War of 1864-1868 are living history.

Which makes Joel Grimes’ coffee-table-sized book of photographs that much more impressive. As an outsider, Grimes did not have ready access to the people whose lives and culture he hoped to chronicle, but with great patience and obvious respect, he has produced vivid images of people and places that capture the contradictory forces tugging at the nation’s largest Indian tribe.


Located far from large cities, the Navajo Reservation is a place of immense space and beauty (which Grimes explores in his painterly landscapes of sand and sky). Yet with the relentless intrusion of modern culture, Navajo traditions have come under siege. A portrait of turquoise-bedecked Rose Tracy and her pensive great-granddaughter Amanda deftly captures the dichotomy. The little girl wears a T-shirt printed with a saguaro cactus that could have come from an airport gift shop.

Grimes and his camera encountered elderly medicine men outside their hogans, sheepherders in the desert and weavers at their looms. Yet pictures of a nurse, a welder and even a young rap artist are reminders that change is just around the corner.

The text is supplied by Navajo journalist Betty Reid, whose narrative nicely complements the photographs. A short introductory essay by Dr. Garrick Bailey and Roberta Glenn Bailey offers insight into the history of the Navajos and the events that have shaped them as a people.