Navajo Sheep Cottonwood Root Carving - Marvin Jim (#371)

Navajo Folk Art
Base: 7" x 7"
Height: 17 1/2"

As the saying goes, “sheep is life”.  That may be why Navajo carver Marvin Jim has made this boy look so perfectly satisfied with himself.  Marvin puts great care into all of his work and therefore creates first-rate Navajo folk art.  There are few things that are more Navajo than sheep, and few Navajo folk artists better than Marvin.


Marvin Jim

Based upon the Navajo creation tales, the sculptures of Marvin Jim reflect a time long ago, when animals and humans walked and worked together to create a new world. These traditional stories speak of conversations among all beings, of behaving in a manner of mutual respect and of all beings having an equal position in the community. These legends are an essential part of the Navajo culture. The tales are of universal interaction, compassion and tolerance; the things necessary to live a balanced existence.

The animals played prominate roles in these myths. For example, Coyote is often portrayed delivering fire to humans, a selfish act initially, but one that proved selfless in the end. There was Turkey who kept his wits about him during the great flood. When everyone else grabbed prized personal possessions, he gathered life giving seeds. These seeds made it possible for the people to survive. The four great rams who dispersed the flood waters into a mirage world, making the earth livable are mentioned. Duck, who dove back into the troubled waters to fetch the forgotten medicine bag of First Man is also an important part of the stories. This act cost him his beautiful plumage, but gave rise to the sacred mountains which guard and protect the people.

Every animal holds an important position within the Navajo culture. Their efforts and assistance made the world of today an enjoyable place. Unfortunately, in an imperfect world, relationships are destroyed by subtle indecencies. Greed, jealousy and lack of compassion and understanding, the mistakes common to man are often committed. It was these things that forced the separation of the animal and human worlds. During the separation each went their separate way; intolerance destroyed a harmonious and beneficial relationship. The stories of old remind the Navajo people of their past mistakes and teach them how to avoid making the same errors.

Marvin has chosen to recreate these lessons through sculpture. Raised in the traditional way, this talented young artist, carves his "upright animals" to show that there was once, and will be again, a personal connection to the animal world.


Every once in a while at the trading post we see an artistic movement begin to take shape that we feel may result in a new and important movement in a traditional art form. We have recently begun to wonder whether the work of Navajo wood carver Marvin Jim signals one of those shifts.

By way of background, Blue Mountain Trading Post was founded in 1976, and Twin Rocks Trading Post came along about thirteen years later. Prior to the establishment of Blue Mountain, Rose and Duke Simpson (Mom and Dad) and their five children (us) had established themselves as small dealers of Native American art. The forum was a Plateau filling station on the south side of Blanding, Utah. Duke and Rose were young and had a very large brood of children to keep busy, so the service station filled the bill. As the business developed, many of the local Navajo people began to bring in their crafts for sale or to trade for a little gas to get them down the road. So, at an early age, we were exposed to a wide variety of local crafts.

One thing we noticed over the next 25 years was that our youth had slipped away - Whoops, sorry, wrong story. We noticed that many of the Navajo wood carvers were carving themes that were, for one reason or another, inspired by another culture. Navajo themes rarely seemed to be considered. There were the ever present representations of Hopi katsina dolls; which in those days we referred to as Kachina dolls, and which were often referred to by the tourists as "kachinka" dolls. These Navajo representations created a great deal of controversy, because the Hopi people did not appreciate the Navajos carving Hopi cultural icons. As you may guess, there were both religious and economic reasons for the controversy. The Navajo people, however, were not inclined to give up such a good thing.

We often asked the Navajo carvers why they did not, and would not, carve representations of the Talking God, Changing Woman and other Navajo deities. The common answer was that their medicine man had instructed them not to do so. They had been told that an improper representation of such deities may result in the carver becoming inflicted with a twisted limb, a blind eye or some other severe disability, so they left those images alone.

There were, however, a few carvers who were willing to take a chance. Charlie Willeto, in the 1960's, carved very powerful depictions of Navajo men and women in semi spiritual representations. Charlie also carved representations of owls and half animal beings, which were strictly taboo in the Navajo culture.

In the 1990's Lawrence Jaquaz caught many of us by surprise when he began carving representations of skin walkers; possibly one of the most taboo themes in Navajo culture. Lawrence had lost his family to a drunk driver and felt that he had nothing left to lose. So he carved his skin walkers, daring the evil spirits to take action and tempting fate.

Not so long ago Marvin Jim was carving representation of Hopi katsina dolls. The problem was that Marvin had real talent, and carved very nice katsinas. By the time Marvin began to visit the trading post, however, we had decided that we would no longer buy Navajo representations of Hopi katsinas. So, Marvin's marketing plan was ineffective when it came to us.

In spite of our explanations and protestations, about eight months ago Marvin came into the trading post with a nicely carved representation of a Hopi Long Hair katsina. I was a bit exasperated, since I had told him time and again that we could not buy carvings of that nature. Marvin, who is very good natured and extremely persistent, said, "Okay, thanks anyway," and headed out the door. I watched him walk to his little white car and start to get in. I noticed him hesitate as he spoke with the woman in the vehicle. Half in and half out of the driver's side, he stopped. He was balanced in a peculiar way, with his carving in hand. It was apparent that he was uncertain what to do. I watched rather amused at his predicament, curious what his dilemma was. I would soon find out.

Out of the passenger side of the car came a rather determined looking Navajo woman; and she was heading my way. Marvin was still undecided what his participation in this undertaking would be, and a quick hand motion from his companion decided his fate. Regaining his balance, he came out of the car and followed the woman back up the steps.

At this point I became the nervous one. I have had dealings with determined Navajo women before, and could see a difficult situation fast approaching. This was to be my first meeting with Grace Begay, and, as it turned out, a quite pleasant one at that. Grace simply wanted to know why I wasn't interested in Marvin's work. As Marvin stood quietly by, a
nervous smile on his face, I explained the problem to Grace.

As I became acquainted with Grace my anxiety disappeared. I learned that she was very pleasant, and also learned that she was most interested in knowing why Marvin's talent was not appreciated. I asked her if Marvin had mentioned why we were not buying his work. Marvin's nervous grin deepened, and Grace said that she had been told that we were just not interested. Marvin gave a nervous laugh and said, "Well you weren't. "I told them that I thought Marvin was a very talented carver, and that he should explore his own culture for inspiration. As we talked Marvin and Grace began to understand the problem. We talked about the rich and varied culture of the Navajo, and the possibilities to be explored within it. As we talked a light began to appear in his eyes; an idea had emerged. They said, "We'll be back," and hurried off.

About five days later, Marvin and Grace brought in a very unusual carving. It was a carving of a bear, wrapped in a Navajo blanket and standing upright in a dignified manner. The sculpture was roughly made and quickly sculpted, but the idea was truly exciting. Grace told the story of how the Navajo believed that men and animals had once worked together to bring about a better world. This was shortly after their emergence from the lower worlds. Much good had come from this cooperation; a situation of peace and harmony was accomplished, and man and animal prospered. The cooperation did not last, however. Bickering, jealousy, misunderstanding and miscommunication ensued. The earth surface people caused the animals to throw off their garments, go down on all fours and forever go their own way. What Marvin and Grace had depicted was a representation of this prior time; a symbol of relationships destroyed and opportunities lost. The possibilities flowing from this carving were inspiring.

Craig, Steve and I were excited about the possibilities of such a creative idea, so we had many discussions with Marvin and Grace about the theme, and how to best present it. Marvin was truly inspired by this new work, and continued to improve his animal creations.

All the while Grace stood quietly by, supporting Marvin. Then one day as we were talking about how nice the painting on the carvings was, we learned that Grace was doing the finish work. Marvin proudly proclaimed that Grace was an artist in her own right. Not only was she providing support for Marvin, she was also helping with the creative process. A team effort was even better, their work was, and is now beautifully created. We believe these two artists have come up with a new and exciting idea based on traditional Navajo culture. It took the persistence and determination of Grace to break down the barriers between a hard headed trader and an artist in a rut. Marvin now has a much more relaxed smile on his face.

Other Navajo carvers have noticed and commented on Marvin and Grace's innovative work. It will be interesting to see how their work influences Navajo carving, and what new creations it inspires. Marvin and Grace may ultimately be viewed as break through artists; responsible for a very important new movement in Navajo wood carving.


The gods, of course, had had the animals from the beginning of time. When they arranged the world and planned the pattern of hte stars in the sky, they first laid the glittering objects out on a sheepskin. The Sun, father of the war gods, possessed a flock of sheep in four colors. The beautiful and human myth of the Shooting Chant tells how he offered these to his twin children when they had sought and found him.

Well, what did you come for, the white sheep, perhaps?
No. Not the white sheep.
The black sheep? No.
The spotted sheep? No.
The red sheep? Not the red sheep.
The sheep with the thin bladed horns?
That was the sheep he cherished above all.
Winifred Kupper, The Golden Hoof, 19-21.

It may have been a relief to the Sun that the Twin War Gods asked an even loftier boon, for obviously he had the sheep ready for the People as soon as they were created. Pgs. 38-39

The Navajos; 1956, Ruth M. Underhill.

Cows, sheep and horses were originally obtained through raids upon the neighboring Pueblos and Mexicans, and later through rations issued by the Government. At present practically every family is possessed of a flock of sheep in addition to a band of cattle and horses, making their condition one of comparative affluence. Pg. 143

An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.

In the last fifty years, well within the memory of man, the character of the Navajo terrain had noticeably changed. Where formerly there had been broad smooth plains covered with thick grass of which the best was grama or "buffalo" grass, the plains were now gutted by sharp gullies, some small, others large like the arroyo near which the sheepdip stood. Through them the water ran and cut away the soil whenever it rained, making the crevices always larger. The white people called this "soil erosion" and said it was due to overgrazing. They explained that the large number of sheep owned by the Navajo and the goats were even more harmful had eaten the grass so close that even the roots were destroyed. So short and sparse had they become that they no longer held the soil, and it became loose and easily washed or blown away. At first the Whites had strongly urged the Navajo to diminish their herds, and this year had required a pro-rated reduction, the number to be determined by the count taken at dipping time. Pgs. 9-10

The rangers did not like goats. They said they ruined the range, but Dezba and her people liked them because they lived on less and coarser forage than the sheep, and because they were good leaders of the herd. The Whites despised the meat, for they said it was strong and tough. The Navajo did not find it too strong and thought one felt satisfied longer after a meal of tough meat. Although it was hard to spin, Dezba liked to use mohair for weaving. It was stronger for warp, and when used for weft, gave a soft outline to the pattern which was unusually attractive. Pg. 13

Dezba: Woman of the Desert; 1939, Gladys A. Reichard.

Sheep and goats also had a major impact upon the Navajos and their way of life. The Navajo had begun to take sheep and goats during their raids on Spanish settlements in the early seventeenth century, but it was probably not until the end of this century that they began to herd these animals after intense contact with the Pueblos, who understood Spanish animal husbandry. In the late 1700s and early 1800s the Navajo population began increasing because these animals furnished such a dependable food supply. Sheep and goats and their products also provided a medium of exchange for European-produced goods. Navajos learned the art of weaving from the many Pueblos who lived among them following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Weaving quickly became a part of Navajo culture. By 1795, Navajo weaving had become so highly prized that one writer of that time described their weaving as "finer than that of the Spaniards."

Earth is my Mother, Sky is my Father: Space, Time, and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting;
1992, Trudy Griffen-Pierce.