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Mitchell Silas – Not-so-traditional Navajo sand painter

A sand painter's hands
A sand painter's hands
Don Morreale

Mitchell Silas is a not-so-traditional Navajo sand painter whose work hangs in the Denver Art Museum's permanent collection of Native American art. He was born on a reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico 70 miles from the nearest hospital, and grew up watching his elders ply the sand painting craft not as an art form, but as a healing modality.

Mitchell Silas
Don Morreale

"My grandparents were very traditional," he said. "They observed the ceremonies. Back then there were a lot of them; the Blessing Way, the Beauty Way, and the springtime ceremony to welcome the animals, trees, and plants back to life after their long winter sleep."

At age 13, he was invited to attend a Beauty Way ceremony for alcoholics struggling to get free of addiction. "The idea was to bring the person back into harmony with the self and nature,” he said. “The medicine man asked me to do a sand painting. He was my teacher. He directed me and told me where all the sand was supposed to go. I was fascinated by it. It was like magic."

By the time he was 17, Silas was a regular helper at such ceremonies. “We did different paintings for different illnesses,” he said. “The medicine man would tell us how big the painting was supposed to be, what colors to use, and what designs to paint.”

His participation in the healing rituals eventually put him at odds with the priests at the Catholic boarding school he attended on the reservation. “They told us that our native ceremonies were evil and that if we didn't stop we'd burn in hell,” he said. “But then I'd go home and participate in the ceremonies and my grandparents would tell me ‘No, this is part of who we are. These ceremonies were given to us by the Creator.’ So I was torn between ‘burn in hell’ on the one hand and ‘traditional ways are important’ on the other.”

Deliverance from his spiritual confusion finally came in the mid-1980s in the form of a man whom everyone at first thought was a Mormon missionary, but who turned out to be a Baha'i. "He walked onto the reservation one day," Silas said, "and we all sat down with him in the Hogan. He told us that Baha'i's believe that we all pray to one Creator, and he urged us to maintain our own traditions. That's all I needed to hear. I signed up. My traditional ways come first."

Silas and his wife became "travel teachers" in the Baha'i community, touring the country to proclaim their new-found faith.

"I'm kind of shy and nervous when it comes to public speaking," he said. "In Bowling Green, Ohio, which was our first stop, I decided to do a sand painting instead. People really loved it. So my wife and I put together a program of talks on Baha'i and Navajo healing. At every meeting I'd do a sand painting. I got better and faster at it. Back at the reservation I helped a medicine man who was amazed at how fast I'd become. He'd never seen anybody do sand painting like that."

In 1991 Silas began teaching sand painting classes at Denver Free University. Somebody from the Denver Art Museum got wind of it and asked him to do a traditional painting for the museum. "It's a six-by-six Mother Earth/Father Sky surrounded by a protective rainbow," he said. "The feathers stand for prayers, the bow and arrow for protection."

Over two hundred people from many cultures and traditions showed up for the unveiling. "They all said prayers in their own languages," he said. "The medicine men taught me that the colors of the sand – white, red, yellow, black, and blue – represent all the people. As a Navajo and a Baha'i I want to share my tradition with all the people. That's what I love about it."

Coming Soon! Cowboys, Yogis, and One-legged Ski Bums, a collection of the author's favorite interviews.

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