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Rex Begaye: A Navajo Artist Bringing Indian Country to Sarasota

Diné artist Rex Begaye has a vision.

It speaks of the universal connection of Mother Earth, Father Sky and man. Images are inspired from stories passed down for generations by Indian elders all across Turtle Island, and brought to life in acrylic, oils and ink. Begaye, who has been painting professionally for thirty years, says, "It's an honoring, celebrating the sacredness and discipline of Indian culture. ... What I see, what I hear, what I think, what I feel, and what I touch I bring to the canvas to reach out and teach, from long ago to the edge of tomorrow.” The tomorrow he speaks of is unified by elements of the powwow, where people meet, dance, sing, socialize, and honor American Indian culture. In particular, “It’s a place for greater transparency of American Indian fine arts.,” he says.

Originally from Grand Canyon, Arizona, Begaye now resides in Sarasota with his wife, Barbara, where he is the driving force behind the Sarasota Native American Indian Festival, now in its fifth year. "In 2008, I had taken over a pre-existing powwow often criticized for its lack of authenticity," he explained to an ICTMN reporter visiting the event, which ran from January 25-27. "Dancers were often referred to as 'round eyes' by attendees, and most of the craft items had been imported from China or elsewhere. As a result, the event was labeled as just another wannabe powwow by the general public. I always wanted to organize a powwow, and this one just happened to fall into my lap."

According to the 2000 census, The Native American population of Sarasota is 0.35% -- but as anyone knows, it was not always thus. Prior to Spanish conquest, the lands had been home to such peoples as the Tocobaga and Caloosa, who were all but wiped out by disease, and later the Seminoles, who were forcibly removed by government decree. As a Navajo Indian who has moved east, Begaye is involved in something of a cutural re-occupation.

'Blessing for Rain' by Rex Begaye, source:

He is also determined to change mainstream America’s perception of American Indian art. "We are more than feathers and beads," he says. "We are serious arts and crafts people. The powwow is a perfect way to showcase our continued existence and diversity both culturally and artistically without compromising tradition.” For example, a powwow session usually begins with Grand Entry and, in most cases, a prayer. The Eagle Staff leads the Grand Entry, followed by flags, then the dancers, while one of the host drums sings an opening song. If military veterans or active duty soldiers are present, they often carry the flags and eagle staffs. In keeping with Begaye's vision, the featured artists were part of the morning's Grand Entry as proud contributors of a 10,000 year old culture.

Begaye, as well as other artists present at the event, see a universality to Indian art that transcends ethnicity. Several of the vendors will tell you they are not of Indian heritage, but have a deep respect for the culture and the crafts that inspired it. “We want to help make it more accessible” said Becky Myers of R&R Collectibles, whose shop is located in West Palm Beach. With her husband Bruce, she has been selling American Indian jewelry and crafts for twenty-five years. Becky asserts, “Many American Indian people don't have the means or opportunity to make their work visible to a larger audience. Over the years, we have built a relationship with many Native American artists, and simply wanted to help."

Flute maker Ray Wood. Photo by Julia Jennings

When talking to Ray Wood, the first thing you notice is his long, clearly-whitening beard. He is quick to claim Italian and English blood, but is doing research to see if there is any Indian ancestry to be found. He says, “I was blessed to make flutes. I try to be respectful and not give a false representation of a culture that has changed my life.” He continues, “For ten years I have crafted woodwinds from river cane and bamboo, the wood speaks to me.” Asked whether he has received any negative comments for not being Indian and for making Woodland-style flutes, he said, “A few would walk out of my booth, but for the most part it has all been positive."

Melody Sauceda, a member of the Machis Lower Creek Nation, and owner of Monarch Creations identifies herself as "a fourth generation silversmith." "My two young daughters, Nlchi, four, and Ndezolth, nine, usually accompany me at most shows, so they will have the knowledge." Yet Sauceda doesn't see the presence of non-Indian crafters as a threat. "I think it's awesome," she says. "No matter what heritage or tribe, they are helping us expose our work, while educating visitors wanting to know more about Indian history and culture."

Silversmith Melody Sauceda. Photo by Julia Jennings

Other artists featured were Rick Bird and the Bird Choppers from Cherokee N.C., a dance and drumming group; Little Big Mountain of the Comanche and Mohawk nations, who recreated an encampment to demonstrate the way of life of the plains tribes; Flutist Douglas Blue Feather, recipient of the 2008 Silver Arrow Award for his outstanding contribution to Native American music and numerous NAMMYs; and Cherokee Storyteller James Hansan.

To the ever-present question of who "owns" Native cuture, the answer furnished by the exhibitors and visitors to the Sarasota Native American Indian Festival seemed to be anyone -- anyone who cares about it, whether that be artists, dealers or collectors, willing to work together to advance American Indian interests while being respectful of policies, laws, and resources concerned with a loss of heritage.

Inclusivity was the order of the day, and Begaye seemed pleased. "What a great beauty it is to see, feel and know we are all one with the earth," he said.

To see more of Begaye's work, visit