Navajo photojournalist debuts book on the Nation

By Bernie Dotson
Gallup, New Mexico (AP) October 2010

People are starving for unconventional stories, Don James says.

A graduate of the University of New Mexico, the Navajo-born photojournalist says body language and silence can fuel the imagination in ways traditional storytelling can’t. James, 27-years-old and from Blackwater, on the southeastern side of the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation, signed copies of his book, “One Nation, One Year: A Navajo Photographer’s 365-day Journey into a World of Discovery, Life and Hope” last week. The signing, which took place at the Gallup Cultural Center, was one of several this year around New Mexico by James to promote the book.

“On my journey, I met the most amazing people – people I wouldn’t otherwise have come to know,” said James. “I was living on $100 a week, sleeping in my truck, showering whenever I could, worrying about people not accepting my camera. But living like a poor man was just fine, because I was also living a dream.”

James, who now resides in Albuquerque and visits home “as often as I can,” arrived about 30-minutes before he was scheduled to sign books, “in hopes of chatting with some of the people standing or sitting while waiting to buy a book or get an autograph,” he said.

For years, James, who speaks fluent Navajo, said stories told about his Navajo culture never really captured the true spirit of the people. Now a staff photographer for Albuquerque The Magazine, he said during the year he traversed the vast 27,000-square mile reservation, which includes sections of northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, he immersed himself in the people and the land. Walking, driving and even on horseback, he said he spent an inordinate amount of time with some of his subjects – some of whom live in rural areas and without running water or electricity – using his knowledge of the language to make people feel comfortable in front of the camera. The result was more than 105,000 portraits of real-life Navajos and a rare look into traditional and modern aspects of Navajo culture.

About an hour into the signing, James was busy with a steady stream of people.

“I enjoyed the exhibit very much and I have a copy of the book,” said Don Lewis-Kraitsik, a family medicine physician at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital in Fort Defiance, Ariz., one of the largest communities on the reservation. Lewis-Kraitsik was one of more than two dozen people to come to the signing.

“Some of the people in the photos I either know or have at least encountered at some point. I think it’s remarkable that he was able to do this,” Lewis-Kraitsik said.

The first photo that James took upon starting out on the journey was in February 2008 and of Loliane Tsosie of Bowl Canyon, N.M.A physician’s assistant for 32 years, Tsosie’s finger was chopped off while mowing an alfalfa field. She’s now writing a book about family relationships, according to text in the 128-page publication. Another photo is of Natasha Kaye Johnson, a freelance writer, actress and current legislative staff assistant at the Office of the Speaker of the Navajo Nation. Johnson, who once worked as a reporter for the Independent, starred in the 2007 independent box office drama, “Turquoise Rose,” a hit around the Navajo Nation and about the coming of age of a young Navajo girl. And then another photo is of Pete Gilmore, a former U.S. Army specialist and combat medic in Iraq, who hails from Kayenta, Ariz. Gilmore, the text reads, recently started a boxing program on the reservation. And in an example of the resourcefulness of Navajos, there is a photo of five young men from Whippoorwill, Ariz., who carved out a five-hole make-shift golf course across the street from their housing complex.

“I learned a lot about myself and a lot about my people,” said James, noting that “One Nation” is his first book.”It was really important from the standpoint of self-identity.There are a lot of people out there who know about the existence of Navajos – but, that’s all they know.”

The Cultural Center, which operates under the auspices of the Gallup-based Southwest Indian Foundation, an organization charged with helping Native Americans better their economic and educational opportunities, has on display, too, an exhibit which showcases book’s photos.Jeremy Boucher, executive director at the Cultural Center, said he was impressed with the turnout for the signing.He said the exhibit runs through January 2011.