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Celebration or Exploitation?

To the Editors:

Having taught geology and environmental science at Diné College on the Navajo Nation through the 1990s, I was delighted by the American Scientist cover featuring the painting Emergence by Julie Newdoll (May–June 2009). Tasked by the College’s Board of Regents to more richly infuse Diné philosophy and knowledge into the entire curriculum, a number of us (Diné and non-Diné) worked to find connections between Diné scientific ideas and symbols and counterparts in mainstream science. Response to the respectful use of Diné scientific symbols and language in the classroom and field, from at least two generations of Diné students and in-service teachers, was always affirmative.

Steven Semken
Arizona State University

To the Editors:

As an anthropologist and someone who has worked with Navajos over the past decade, I was concerned over the recent cover art by Julie Newdoll and the decision to use her work. As far as I can tell from visiting Newdoll’s website, Newdoll is not Navajo. Nor does it appear that she has consulted with Navajos about using their narrative traditions and artistic traditions. For many Navajos, these traditions are deeply felt and are not to be appropriated by non-Navajos for profit. Other Native American groups, the Zuni and Hopi for example, have gone to some length to restrict the appropriation of culturally and religiously important images. Newdoll’s work does not so much pay respect to Navajo traditions and beliefs, but instead co-opts them for her own purposes. Navajos have long seen such appropriations and one would like to think that American Scientist and Sigma Xi would not encourage such appropriations.

Anthony K. Webster
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Ms. Newdoll responds:

It crushes me that someone would feel this way about my artwork, particularly concerning a culture and subject for which I have the deepest respect and admiration. I draw my primary inspiration on this topic from Paul Zolbrod’s book Diné Bahane: The Navajo Creation Story. When I discovered this book, I felt that everyone should read it and get a feel for how sophisticated, imaginative and creative the Diné culture is, and how insightful they are about so many things.

I am aware that tribes such as the Zuni and the Hopi guard their stories and traditions, and therefore I did not use them but chose to use a published source. Some symbols in the paintings are inspired by published Diné sources, but they are not replicas or copies. They are meant to give the flavor of the Diné world and tie the symbolism of the original story to that of the scientific theory.

Far from making money, I lose thousands of dollars each year on my art “business.” I have come to feel that artists are more a public service than a business in our culture. My purpose is to celebrate and share the fascinating topics I have found in my search for metaphors for science. I would hate to see such wonderful cultures slip away, but I take such criticisms seriously. My work in future will focus on the merger of Shakespeare and science, which I am very excited about.

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