Healing Artist: Napie documents family’s suicides through photography

May 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 18-4: Health and Healing, Features
By Velencia Tso-Yazzie

Herbert Clayton Napie, Jr., (known as “Clay” by his friends and family) is an aspiring multi-media artist hailing from Huerfano, NM. As a child, he often admired the photos his maternal grandfather, Teddy Castiano, Sr., took. Later in his life, the admiration became a passion and a focus in his life. Today, it has become a healing process for the losses he has endured.

He is the first person in his large family to attend college. In the spring of 2007, he will be receiving his Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Studio Arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA, Santa Fe, NM).

Napie had little knowledge of his culture as he was growing up, living away from the Navajo reservation in places like Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, which did not help with learning the language of his people, Diné.

“Growing up, I really didn’t have the Diné culture around me. My mom would try to teach me the Diné language, and me being so young at the time, not wanting to learn, made it harder to learn anything about my culture,” Napie said.

Coming back to the Southwest in 2002 was a big transition for him. He had found out about a tribal school, IAIA, from an acquaintance of his at the Denver March Pow Wow in Denver, CO. It brought him closer to his family, but then he lost four of them to suicide, a problem that he never knew existed on the reservations. Over 3 years, Napie suffered tremendously.

“We as Native people have the highest rate of suicide, and hopefully my project will help people understand that there is a problem on the reservations,” he said.

His senior project, “I Wish I Could’ve…,” is based on the tragedies Napie and his family have gone through.

“I want to use my photography in a way of healing. It also can be healing for my family,” Napie continued.

In hopes of opening the eyes of his audience, his work focuses on the epidemic of suicide. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, there have been more Native American deaths caused by suicide than homicide. Native Americans are one and a half times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

Napie addresses this issue through different techniques like infra-red and solar transfers of the family he has lost to suicide. Photographs of his cousin, Nehemiah Castiano, who died in 2005, will be transmitted onto skateboards. “He loved skateboarding. He did it all his life,” he said.

The pictures of Napie’s maternal uncle, Teddy Castiano, Jr., who died in 2002 and 2003, will be transferred onto a guitar. “When I think of him, I always remember him playing his guitar,” Napie said.

“It is hard for me to print these images of my relatives that passed on. My whole family is my motivation, like Nehemiah’s father who told me he found a note in his pants pocket that said, ‘I want to be remembered.’ These are the things that get me through rough times.”

Surely, his art, his senior project, will be memorable to those who will view them in the spring of 2007 in the Primitive Edge Gallery located on the IAIA campus.

Dorothy Grandbois, the IAIA photography instructor, believes that her students take their projects beyond their assignments. She said, “It takes a lot of strength and courage to make that kind of work, something that needs to be brought out, something that’s rampant through Indian country. His work is so riveting because it’s so personalized and an important issue.”

As a Navajo artist, Napie expresses his ever-increasing love for his family and his art by documenting them. “Ten years from now, I see myself still working with black and white photography. I like to be in control of what I do, developing my film and printing my own images. I will also continue to take pictures of my family and make sure we stay close!”

And with his art, he hopes to “teach the children in [his] family about photography, particularly black and white, and all the different ways you can express yourself through art.”

Napie expresses his gratitude toward his family for supporting him throughout his project. He also credits Grandbois, who also has been supportive of him in his hardships throughout the years. “She (Grandbois) helped me become a better photographer…and a better person.”

Velencia Ann Tso-Yazzie, Diné, is of the Bitterwater clan and born for the Near the Water clan of the Navajo people. She is a transfer student from Diné College where she obtained an A.A. in Liberal Arts and Fine Arts and is currently working toward a B.A. in Creative Writing and Fine Arts at the Institute of American Indian Art. Tso-Yazzie and her husband, Dulbert, also an IAIA student, have three children. Tso-Yazzie writes for the Institute of American Indian Arts Chronicle, an online student publication. Her writing and photography have been published in the Tribal College Journal, Pasatiempo, and Fish Head Soup, the 2005 IAIA Student Anthology. She is also the recipient of the 2006 Truman Capote Scholarship.

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