Navajo Couples Cottonwood Root Carving - Harry Bert (#01)

Navajo Folk Art
Base: 4 3/4" x 4 1/2"
Height: 19"

The love and relationships of Navajo couples between male and female is the theme of this Harry Burt carving.  Harry Burt is the one who trained Dennis Ross how to carve; and if you’ve ever seen his work than you’ll know for sure Harry is a master craftsman in the wood whittling art form. Harry sculpted this one out of cottonwood root that he finds floating in the San Juan River.  He has loved his honey and loved to carve for a very long time, and this sculpture is a tribute to both.


Harry Bert

Harry Bert - Kachina Carver: For sixteen years Harry Bert has been searching out the sandbars of the mighty Colorado and San Juan rivers, and scavenging the shores of Lake Powell. He is looking for driftwood- the water tumbled cottonwood roots that wash up in shoals like bleached bones. It is from these roots that Harry creates new life with his wood sculptures. "I try and make it more human than sculpture," he asserts. "How you see it is how it is in real life."

"I'm not here to impress anybody," Harry Bert says matter-of-factly, then he makes a statement that at first may seem as though he were contradicting himself: "I'm here to do what I like to do. I get enjoyment out of doing something that people really like- that's mainly why I do it."

Harry- half Navajo and half Hopi- is an artist that is totally comfortable with himself. This self assurance comes through in his work, which is one of the reasons they are so appealing.

When asked how his work differs from other artists, he answers, "I try to make them more realistic than anybody else does. I try and see my friends dancing in my mind, then that's how I make my Kachinas."

Harry uses hand tools to saw away unwanted wood, then to shape his piece and carve in details. Lastly he sands the figures, burning the wood slightly so that the acrylic water colors don't seep and run through the wood.

"I have to have the right wood," Harry says, "The wood has to feel right. In some pieces of wood the form's already in it- usually it just comes out by itself."

Being a Kachina carver isn't something Harry imagined for himself when he was growing up. From the time he was 8 years old Harry lived the school months in a foster home in Orem, Utah, graduating from Orem High School in the early 70's. "When I went home I never felt like I was home," he remembers. "That's the reason I just left again and went to school."

After high school Harry went to a trade school where he took automotive classes. Then he attended Northern Arizona University where he earned a teaching certificate. "I wanted to be a mechanic, but I ended up just being a teacher." Harry taught art at Tuba City High School for six years.

His cousins first got him interested in carving Kachina dancers. When he was home, he explains, "I would mingle around with everyone else. During the night we would have a dance, or go sing in the Kivas. During the day there was nothing else to do but carve, so I tried to learn. When I started I wasn't too good at it. During the winter time there was nothing to do, so I tried to learn more."

At the same time he was learning about his ancestry. "My friends taught me after I got back," he says, "They told me, 'A spiritual person helps you along, protects you.'"

Now Harry lives a life close to his roots, and carves full time, supporting his wife and three daughters on his income. His wife makes pottery and they travel to Indian shows, sharing their art with others, learning more about their Native American heritage. "Sometimes I get new ideas," he adds, as he talks about making a continual effort to improve his Kachinas. "With each one I try and do my very best."


First Man burned a crystal for a fire. The crystal belonged to the male and was the symbol of the mind and of clear seeing. When First Man burned it, it was the mind's awakening. First Woman burned her turquoise for a fire. First Woman saw that First Man had a crystal for a fire, and she saw that it was stronger than her turquoise fire. And as she was thinking, First Man spoke to her. "Why do you not come with your fire and we will live together." The woman agreed to this. So instead of the man going to the woman, as is the custom now, the woman went to the man. Pg. 2

The woman's strength was not to be as great as the man's strength. They could not attend to the planting and harvesting as the men could, therefore men would be worth more than women. And the plan was that women would propose marriage to men; but the Coyote came and said:"Brothers, listen, I have just married a woman." again he spoiled their plan. Men propose marriage to women; but because of the older plan there are still cases where women go after men. Then not long after that, that which the bird, chishgahi, said came true (So far there had been no babies born as they are now born. This was the plan. But a small bird with a red breast came and said:"My grandchildren, look at the blood that comes from me." It was a monthly occurrence after that, and it came to all female beings. The bird was chishgahi, the robin.);But they still thought it unwise to have babies born in the new way. Just then the Coyote came and said:"Brothers, I have a little baby." Then they planned how a husband and a wife should feel toward each other, and how jealousy should affect both sexes. They got the yucca and the yucca fruit, and water from the sacred springs, and dew from all the plants, corn, trees, and flowers. These they gathered, and they called them tqo alchin, sacred waters. They rubbed the yucca and the sacred waters over the woman's heart and over the man's heart. This was done so they would love each other; but at the same time there arose jealousy between the man and the woman, his wife. After that they planned how each sex would have its feeling of passion. A medicine was made and it was given to the man and the woman. This medicine was for the organs of sex. The organ of the man would whistle; and then the organ of the woman would whistle. When they heard this each organ gave a long, clear whistle. After that they came together and the sound of the whistle was different. That is why the voices of the young boy and maiden are different; and it is why their voices change. Pg. 33

The Dine': Origin Myths of the Navajo Indians, 1956; Aileen O'Bryan.