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Three Navajo artists share visions, change young lives

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - They call themselves the Three Amigos ... sort of. Every time anyone calls them that, they laugh.

Shonto Begay, author, illustrator and artist, Clarence Clearwater, musician songwriter, and Larry King, storyteller - each has something to say about his Navajo heritage. Each one is passionate about his people and their past. Each one is even more passionate about his people's future.

As friends and artists, similar interests draw them together. But it is their complementary philosophies that occasionally send them out to schools around the country, teaching what they know best - the Navajo way of life.

"In this age with people trying to connect ... trying to figure out where they stand in the grand scheme of things, we just need to tell whoever will listen, that we are still here," Begay says. "Our culture is still alive. And it's a happenin' culture here."

Begay, who has traveled all over the country lecturing solo at schools, has written children's books and poetry and illustrated numerous trade and text books. In 1993 he received the Arizona Association of Librarians Author award and Best Book award. In 1996 the American Library Association gave him the "most notable" award for his books "Navajo Visions" and "Voices Across the Mesa."

"The visions I share today are varied experiences of joy, pain and that which lies in between," Begay says. " I try to illuminate the everyday, uncelebrated experience of life that connects the viewer to his life and mine as travelers on the same road."

Traveling the same road brought Begay and Clearwater together. Clearwater, who had just hitched back from New York City where he had been working as a professional musician, was bumming a ride near his hometown of Gallup, N.M. Begay picked him up on a whim. Their similar interests led to friendship and later educational gigs at local schools.

For Clearwater, coming home to Gallup changed his life. He spent months living on the streets, re-establishing a connection with his roots. From the Navajo street people he began learning about his culture and Native language.

The vagabond life gave his music a new sound. It became genuine, grounded and very Native - a scary and exhilarating transformation the young musician says.

"Your hand touching the Mother Earth - that's your roots," Clearwater says. "I tell people everywhere that at least once today touch the Mother Earth and you will gain inside what you need ... to fulfill yourself ."

Clearwater says it was living two lives in America - the American Dream and the traditional Navajo life - that gave him a new perspective on both. In his music he tries to wake people up to a different point of view. In both his solo and joint school presentations with Begay and King, he uses music as a doorway to a different perception.

"I can see the America I have known is actually a monster ... that is replacing a lot of our old traditional ideas," Clearwater says. "In my mind America is still the enemy."

He says that, not surprisingly, a lot of parents ask him why he is making a public presentation of such views.

"I tell them, 'All you have is a very conservative ethic being presented to your kids. Today there is this new terrorism that pervades our people that is called complacency. They give us a home, a car, a little bit of land, they give us schools and livestock and they want us to forget the past. They want us to help them rescind the treaties. This to me is the ultimate monster.

"I do not expect them (students) to believe as I believe. But I think their thought will be broader and wider with this perception."

King, a friend of Begay's from the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe way back in the early 1970s, also makes solo presentations in elder hostels and schools.

As a storyteller with the Three Amigos, King is a tonic for Clearwater's pugnaciousness. He says he delights in spinning humorous anecdotes depicting the dynamics of the Navajo language. Many of his stories teach children how to cope with a rapidly changing society and its new technologies by mixing sound elements between English and Navajo words, poking fun at what could be anxiety provoking cross-cultural experiences.

"I also like to dispel stereotypes," King says. "I like to make children aware of the magic of language and communicating."

With multiculturalism the buzz word in schools, the Three Amigos fit right in, providing insight on a multitude of levels - social, cultural, political and artistic.

One of the things all three advocate to students is turning the television off. As artists and spokespeople for their culture, they forthrightly demonstrate by the quality of their own eclectic, creative lives, the fruits of silence and creating sacred space within.

"We all complement each other," Begay says. "There is no repetition, no competition. ... We are just here doing our thing, hoping we are doing good affecting the lives of young kids and helping them in the direction they choose to go."