Forbes – Shonto Begay: ‘Art Saves Lives’

By Chad Scott | April 17, 2021

“Art saves lives.” –Shonto Begay.

For Diné (Navajo) artist Shonto Begay (b. 1954), that’s more than a figure of speech. It’s autobiographical.

“I was what they call a generation of the walking traumas, because of the 13 boys that I grew up with very closely, there’s only three of us alive,” Begay told Forbes.com.

Begay’s personal history reaches back into an era difficult to imagine in a contemporary world.

He was born in a ceremonial Navajo hogan–a sacred home–to a mother who was a traditional Navajo rug weaver from the Bitter Water Clan. His father was a medicine man born to the Salt Clan. Begay grew up in the 1950s as one of 16 kids, herding sheep in the cinematically beautiful rock cliffs, canyons and chapparal-covered mountains of Kletha Valley, deep inside the Navajo Nation in tiny Shonto, Arizona.

“Shonto” in Diné translates to “sunshine spring.”

It wasn’t his tribal upbringing which created “a generation of the walking traumas,” the “trauma” Begay experienced came in the form of the dehumanizing U.S. government run Indian Boarding Schools. In the abusive and tragic annals of American History, the Indian Boarding Schools stand as particularly inhumane. Native American children torn from their families and sent far away into forced white, euro-centric cultural assimilation camps.

“Kill the Indian, save the man” was the mantra of these institutions founded on white supremacy with that operating philosophy as their only guiding principle.

“It was a casualty,” Begay says of his time in the boarding schools. “Mentally, physically–it took a lot of lives. A sense of hopelessness. It was a brutal situation. It was a really brutal experience. I survived it and that’s why I do art. It keeps me from going to a place where I don’t want to go.”

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