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Opening his homeland to everyone

Associated Press

LeRoy DeJolie shoots the endless blue skies and striking red sandstone mesas of Navajo country with the eye of a photographer and the heart of a son.

“I grew up in a sheep camp. I’m about as Navajo as they come,” says DeJolie, who has spent nearly all his life in the high, wind-swept country of northern Arizona’s Kaibito Plateau. DeJolie will sell his fine art prints this weekend at Santa Fe Indian Market.

The annual market draws hordes of visitors -- the sponsoring Southwestern Assn. for Indian Arts estimates 80,000 -- from around the world to view the jewelry, pottery, sculpture, weavings, basketry and other work of nearly 1,100 Indian artists.

“It’s the best venue for Native Americans to sell their work,” says DeJolie, a steelworker who will be making his third trip to the show.

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Traveling in his old Toyota truck, lugging along a vintage, big format camera and tripod, DeJolie spends his spare time capturing the stunning vistas of the land of the Dine, the Navajos’ name for themselves. He has racked up about 300,000 miles on the odometer, an inventory of 2,400 images and a growing reputation as a landscape photographer.

“I see Navajoland not as dry and barren and desolate. I see it as very beautiful. It’s not only my homeland, but it’s a magical place,” he says.

DeJolie’s book, “NavajoLand: A Native Son Shares His Legacy,” came out in April. It offers a dazzling visual tour of Dinetah -- the Navajos’ traditional homeland, extending beyond the reservation and bounded by the four sacred mountains: Colorado’s Mt. Blanca to the east, New Mexico’s Mt. Taylor to the south, San Francisco Peaks in Arizona to the west, and Mt. Hesperus in Colorado to the north.

“I put LeRoy up there with the very best,” says Gary Avey, publisher of Phoenix-based Native Peoples magazine.

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Avey says that DeJolie combines a respect for the discipline of photography with “an almost visceral respect for the land.”

“It comes out the lens.... It’s the real land. It’s not embellished,” he says.

DeJolie, 45, lives on the reservation and fabricates structural steel and pipes at the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., where he has worked for 27 years. DeJolie learned the rudiments of photography from his father, a Korean War photographer, but is largely self-taught.

He operates a summer program called “My World” aimed at motivating youngsters to do better in school and stay away from drugs and alcohol and showing “them they’re worth something,” says DeJolie, who hopes to spark an interest in photography that will stay with them. He gets donated cameras, shows kids on the reservation how to use them, and turns them loose for a couple of days to shoot their world.

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“American Indians have long been out in front of the camera being photographed,” he says. “I’m hoping that through the ‘My World’ project that trend will eventually change, and we’ll get more native photographers behind the camera.”


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