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The Navajo way.

Respect for animals has been an important characteristic of Native-American life in general, and the Navajo have special relationships with animals of all kinds. In Navajoland, insects, called cho'osh, are special creatures. They show the Dine(1) (The Children of the Holy People) where to find water for their animals in their arid homeland. The spider is revered as the inspiration for weaving, and the locust, or w66neeshchiidii, represents medicine and food. Within the proper perspective, students can gain a deep appreciation for all creatures when they learn about the cultural significance of animals to different people.

Learning Respect

The Navajo method of teaching art has similarities to and differences from mainstream methods. Isabelle White, a Navajo art instructor from Many Farms Elementary School in Arizona, teaches third grade students how to construct three-dimensional shapes, mix new colors and add details like texture...but that's not all Ms. White does. She conveys a deep respect for living creatures as she encourages her students to research the insects' ways as well as their appearances. Her sensitive methods are structured but fluid. This article will describe and interpret her teaching style as she interacts with her students.

Repeat and Reinforce

Before the lesson begins, Ms. White asks her students to find pictures of their favorite insects to use as models. She begins the lesson by showing an example and reviewing three-dimensional form. White asks, "Why is this a form?"

"You can look at it from the sides and on top," one student replies.

"Good," she praises. Then she presents the basic forms: a cylinder, a pyramid and a sphere. She shows them how to construct a simple rolled cylinder, to bend and fold triangle shapes for the body and legs, and how to make a simple round shape into a sphere by pleating the sides and stuffing newspaper underneath. After the students make their insect forms, Ms. White instructs them on the addition of pattern. "What is pattern?" she asks.

Students reply, "Repeating things."

She questions further, "How do you do this? You can paint or glue parts on. Why not use these Anasazi(2) beans for decoration?" Then she reviews painting. "What kind of paint is this?"

Students answer in unison, "Tempera." She suggests the students put the paint in egg cartons for mixing, and reminds them to repeat colors in their paintings.

She reviews materials once more and asks, "What do we do first" One student suggests finding an insect picture as a model. "What do we do second?" Students answer with instructions on how to make forms of various shapes. "What do we need to paint?"

"Tempera, brushes, paper towels, and newspaper," they reply. Ms. White warns students to walk with scissors pointed down, not up. This constant demonstration and repetition is the traditional way of instruction for Navajo children.

In-process appraisal is the monitoring of student progress and product with alternative suggestions if needed. Navajo students experience this technique on a constant and individual basis (nearly 28 minutes out of a 45-minute class). Ms. White circulates in the classroom helping the children. She assists one girl by asking, "What do we need here to make this stand up more?"

Pam shyly answers, "Stick newspaper underneath." and she stuck brown construction paper under her moth wings to make them stand up. She decides the brown paper can be a rock the moth has landed on, and proceeds to mix new color variations in a free pattern on her moth's wings. Her neighbor is mixing a new orange color for the first time.

Two boys are painting their walking sticks for the art show. Even though Ms. White shows them that this insect has longer legs, they prefer to keep them short. The finished example is made of green construction paper, decorated with spiral macaroni and Anasazi beans, and glued to a flat, painted tree with leaves.

At another table, four boys are constructing their insects from pictures in books. They have drawn insect models on the side of their papers. Greg is adding wings to his grasshopper. When I ask him how he learned to construct it, he replies, "Ms. White showed us how to bend the legs and to slit its back with scissors."

Later, Ms. White praises this grasshopper, "Look, class, at this wonderful texture made with Anasazi beans lined up in a row on the grasshopper's legs."

The boy on the right is making a black garden spider; his neighbor is making a black widow. One boy adds folded legs and more paper stuffing to his spider to make it pop out more.

Ms. White is pleased and praises her students' finished work publicly: "You did a good job mixing colors and adding texture. Your work will go into the art show."

What We Can Learn

This lesson points out several important things that mainstream teachers can Iearn from Navajo art teachers. One is the importance of learning respect for all living things, and the discussion of the significance of insects, no matter how small. Another concept central to the Navajo way of teaching is the importance of careful demonstration and step-by-step instruction, and the necessity for repetition and review of concepts and skills. Perhaps most important is the need for teacher patience, and the Navajo technique of constant in-process appraisal. Such folk teaching is dominant in Navajo tradition, and though little information exists on the teaching of elementary art in the Navajo Nation, the Navajo public school system is very supportive of the arts, which lie at the heart of their culture.


(1).The Navajo prefer the name the Dine, because the word Navajo translates as "horse thief" and may be insulting to some. Navajo is used here only as a familiar classification and to instruct others about such mislabeling of people.

(2).The word Anasazi refers to the "Old Ones," the Pueblo people who lived in the Canyon De Chelly area before the Dine came. The term "Anasazi," in relation to beans, is used to instruct children that this popular food was first grown by this culture.


Leighton, D., and C. Kluckhohn, The Children of the People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1947. Stokrocki, M. "The Anglo View of Running Water: An Exploratory Microethnographic Study of Teaching Art to Navajo Students" in H. Kauppinen and M.R. Diket, Recent Trends in Art Education in Diverse Cultures. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 1992.

Mary Stokrocki is Associate Professor, School of Art, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. A special thank you to Ms. Isabelle White, the Navajo art teacher who participated in this study.
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Title Annotation:Navajo Indian method of teaching art
Author:Stokrocki, Mary
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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