Diné Maker Faire on the Navajo Nation

Maker News
Diné Maker Faire on the Navajo Nation

Any Maker Faire is a reaffirmation that we’re all born to make — that’s what makes us human in the first place. It’s also a celebration of making’s past and future, where traditional crafts meet new technology. And there’s nothing like attending a Faire in another country to really fire up those feelings of connection. In mid-March I was lucky to attend one in a sovereign nation on U.S. soil: Diné Maker Nation Maker Faire, at Navajo Technical University (NTU) on the Navajo reservation in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

Navajo Technical University amid the mesas of Crownpoint, New Mexico.

The Navajo (or Diné, the people, as they call themselves) are globally recognized makers of the American Southwest. They’ve built a long tradition of fine craftsmanship in wool weaving, silversmithing, and jewelry making, despite bitter headwinds of conquest and deprivation. After centuries of war with the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans, in 1864 some 8,500 Navajo were force-marched 400 miles to a squalid camp in eastern New Mexico. Hundreds died en route. The Treaty of 1868 finally returned the Diné to their ancestral lands.

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The Navajo Nation is the largest Native reservation in the United States, covering an enormous swath of high-desert canyon country on the Colorado Plateau in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. But even there, they’ve often been treated as second-class citizens. Denied water rights to the Colorado River, even as the states around them drank their fill. Poisoned by radiation in the uranium mines and mills that used them as cheap labor without protection. Nuked 100 times by atomic fallout from the Nevada Test Site. Life on the rez was mainly subsistence agriculture and livestock grazing; good-paying skilled jobs were few. Roads were so bad that the school buses often couldn’t run; schools were so bad that parents sent kids away to neighboring states.

In the 1970s the Navajo Nation became home to the West’s largest coal-fired power plant. It brought a thousand jobs but smogged the reservation — and the Grand Canyon — and was America’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Power went to L.A., Vegas, and Phoenix, while half the reservation still lacked electricity.

That’s the past. The last trainload of coal was burned in 2019; today the plant is being dismantled because fracked gas and solar are cheaper. The Navajo are moving forward, getting elected to county commissions, fixing roads, demanding their share of precious water. They’re rededicating their schools and colleges to STEM education, self-determination, and a revival of their language and culture.

At the Diné Maker Faire on March 12, there was a feeling that their days in the back seat are ending. That this time the Navajo are driving the bus.

Two Tracks to Opportunity

Navajo Tech is a leader among U.S. tribal colleges for its dual focus on technical trade skills and advanced academic degrees; it’s the only one with ABET accreditation for engineering. NTU has a sophisticated high-tech Fab Lab and strong partnerships with NASA, NSF, DOE and the national nuclear labs, and aerospace companies like Boeing.

Dr. Peter Romine heads the electrical engineering department, where he emphasizes hands-on, project-based learning that would be right at home in Make: magazine. Since 2015 his students have exhibited at Maker Faires in the Bay Area, New York, and Washington, D.C., as well as the NASA Innovation Challenge and the Nation of Makers Conference. Peter is a lead organizer of the Diné Maker Faire and a firm believer in NTU’s dual-track education.

“Given the free choice,” Peter asked, “what percentage of humans would choose a technical career that requires a 2-year degree, versus needing a 4-year degree? I believe the vast majority would prefer skills and jobs that help them make a living locally. I think the Navajo could become an example of that other approach to education that equally respects technical and trade skills along with academic skills. The Maker Movement democratizes learning; you don’t have to be this elite-college-ready person, you could become or do anything, make money, have a fulfilling life, create businesses, employ people.”

Daniel Vandever, NTU’s communications director, is another key organizer of this Faire. He exudes Navajo pride and a keen sense of irony. “My grandfather was a code talker [in World War II] who helped save the nation by speaking his language,” he said. “My father was beaten for speaking Navajo in boarding school in Utah.” Daniel earned his degree at NTU in Navajo Culture, Language, and Leadership and wrote a kids’ book based on his father’s experience; now he’s calling on Navajo makers to envision their place in a prosperous future. “Our goal at NTU is to provide pathways to opportunities,” he said, whether academic or technical. “We want all students to engage with academics, but know that it does lead to careers.”

Four Worlds of Making

Diné Maker Faire is organized according to the Navajo creation legend of the Four Worlds, Daniel explained, to show how the art of making has evolved over time. The Black World represents the oldest, traditional knowledge and crafts; Blue World showcases trades and careers in the modern wage economy; Yellow World is creativity and reclaiming identity; White World is today’s newest technology. At this year’s event, a fifth, Glittering World represents youth and the future of making.

Black World — Tradition


DOLL MAKING: Artist and teacher Barbara Morgan showed how to sew traditional Navajo costumes, based on historical sources and old family photos. “Before the treaty, we were loud, proud, and mean,” she said. “After the treaty we dressed in rags.”


SILVERSMITHING: Morgan also showed fine silver work by her son Julius K. Morgan. These beautiful belt buckles were not stamped, but cast in molds sculpted from soft volcanic tufa rock, which lends itself to thicker, serpentine forms.


MAKING A NAVAJO BUN: Undergrad IT major Shalii White (foreground) showed women and girls how to make a hair tie from loops of yarn, then use it to fold up their long hair into a tsiiyéeł, the traditional Navajo bun hairstyle.


WEAVING: NTU students learn to build a loom, use native plants for dyes, and weave wool rugs and baskets. Freshman IT major Christa Goodluck showed a traditional basket that will be sealed with pine pitch for carrying water.


MOCCASIN MAKING: Brent Toadlena teaches traditional techniques for preparing leather. “First you soak it until it’s soft, then stretch it out to dry flat for three days. Then scrape the flesh side clean … rub warm sheep fat into it, then pound it with a stone. Then bury it in the soil for three days. Then you can sew it!” I noticed his audience was all wearing flat-soled Vans and Chucks.


NAVAJO SENTENCE STRUCTURE: Navajo is a famously complex language that helped the U.S. and allies to win World War II when Navajo “code talkers” relayed secret military communications via radio in the Pacific. Here, the words for space, spacecraft, and spaceman (astronaut).


KIDS’ MAKER CORNER / CREATIVE MINDS was a fun kids’ activity area making crafts and gadgets, sponsored by the NTU early learning and preschool staff.  Tables were filled with kids the whole day. I spotted Forky from Toy Story 4 next to a traditional Navajo cradleboard infant carrier.


Blue World — Trades


WELDING: Instructor Chris Storer led a hands-on Learn to Weld activity and a welding contest. He’s also a silversmith, and he was proud to show off this awesome steel sculpture of an ear of corn created by students Gabby Bryant and Leomie Foster: “The girls are doing great work!”


AUTOMOTIVE TECH: Instructor Shawn Piechowski showed off the Polaris UTV his students are modding with a DynoJet quick-shift sensor, new clutches, Portal gear reductions for higher torque, and 24″ lifts for extreme high clearance over rocks and gullies. “I’ve worked on a lot of these for hunters, but this one is our monster sheep-herding rig,” he said. “There’s a real need for this on the Navajo Nation.”


SOIL HEALTH: Shawna Begay from the USDA led kids (and lots of adults) in a hands-on Seed Ball Making activity. “On the Navajo Nation we have a huge problem with overgrazing. We’re teaching kids how to replant vegetation in a fun and easy way.”


Yellow World — Identity


COSTUME FABRICATION: Kirk Tom wears his handmade cosplay Star Wars firetrooper armor emblazoned with his original insignia painted in the style of traditional Navajo weaving. “I always like to make my own designs,” he says. No CNC or 3D printing here; that helmet is sculpted entirely free-hand from EVA foam.


SHOE DESIGN: Basketball rules the rez, and Tristan (“Tris”) Mexicano is a baller. “Until freshman year at NTU,” he says, “I never had more than one pair of shoes.” A friend taught him to take care of his new basketball shoes and they started customizing them for games. Tris is now a self-taught footwear expert, able to disassemble, reglue, and reshape modern shoes. He donates refurbished pairs to kids in need, and even takes small commissions customizing shoes for athletes and friends.



GREENSCREEN: Felicia Chischilly and other New Media students ran a Photo Booth backed by a greenscreen so participants can add special effects later.


CHOCOLATE FANTASY: Chocolatiers Sheila Begay and Alayne Kinlecheeny showed their latest confection, a crazy detailed sculpture of castle, dragon, and skulls. The week before, they had beaten professional chefs to win the Chocolate Fantasy gala in Albuquerque.


Photo by Felicia Chischilly

REMOTE RADIO BROADCAST: Cuyler Frank of KCZY-FM radio shows Debberona Chischilly how to broadcast remotely from the rez or anywhere else. Cuyler has attended New York and Bay Area Maker Faires and he knows all the Navajo legends.

White World — Today’s Tech


3D PRINTING: Jonathan Chinana exhibited his Soft Robotics experiments; he’s using 3D printed molds to cast silicone rubber actuators and grippers that change shape when inflated. Jonathan did a summer research program at Harvard University and came back full of skills and ideas but lacking some of their fancy equipment. He built this DIY vacuum chamber from PVC pipe and 3D printed end caps, for degassing the silicone castings.


ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING: Student makers showed off CNC pen plotters, a massive wraparound flight simulator, and this 3D-printed Wile E. Coyote picture, rigged with an ultrasonic distance sensor and Arduino. It makes Road Runner sound effects when it detects your presence.


RESILIENT CLEAN ENERGY: Instructor Darrick Lee demonstrated a Solar Micro Grid for powering a small group of homes. Much of the vast Navajo reservation is still without electricity, and homes are commonly miles apart. “The younger generation wants electricity,” he said, “but it costs $27,000 per mile for the power company to extend a line to your house.” Darrick’s off-grid inverter design can also be adapted to grid-tie to a 25kV utility power line.


MECHANICAL ROPING: A robotic “calf” zooms out from underneath this dummy horse for roping practice. It’s a joint project of an electrical engineering team led by Hansen Tapaha, and the NTU rodeo team.


FAB LAB: Scott Halliday walked me through the fabrication machines and metrology capabilities of NTU’s sophisticated Fab Lab. It rivals any I’ve seen. “We want to be Penn State, Texas Tech,” Scott says. “Just because we’re out on the reservation doesn’t mean these students shouldn’t get an equally great education.” He trains both technical and engineering students on the whole ecosystem of advanced manufacturing from CAD to final inspection, because, he says, “A technically well prepared student understands the theory better and understands precision better.” A joint venture to manufacture precision parts for Boeing begins this year.



METAL 3D PRINTING: NTU Fab Lab’s new Optomec metal 3D printer uses high-powered lasers to weld metal powders completely, no binders or post-curing, just solid metal parts right out of the printer. Sick! Additive manufacturing (AM) technician Gregory Dodge showed me a test print in solid stainless steel: a traditional Navajo stamp for silversmithing.


Glittering World — Youth and Future


Photo courtesy Daniel Vandever, NTU

KIDS 3D PRINT CHALLENGE: Middle and high schoolers competed in the Innoventure Design Challenge to design and 3D print a product to help Navajo elders, co-sponsored by KARMA, the Ke’yah Advanced Rural Manufacturing Alliance, a Native entrepreneurship program.

Next-Gen Navajo

What lies ahead for technology-minded young Navajo? Maker careers are already in front of them — good-paying work in digital design and fabrication, engineering, coding, and precision manufacturing. They’ll also build the next-gen water and power infrastructure on the Navajo Nation, restore soils, and clean up the uranium mistakes of the past, starting with a new certified environmental testing lab and training facility at the NTU Center for the Environment.

And if nuclear power is part of the world’s climate solution, shouldn’t Navajo engineers and technicians be designing and operating new, safer mines, mills, and reactors, to avoid repeating those mistakes? All this would’ve sounded impossible 20 years ago. On this day at Navajo Tech, nothing really sounds impossible.


Covid Coda

Diné Maker Faire was the last global Maker Faire of 2020, before the coronavirus shut down the world. My flight home was crowded with college track teams, bewildered at being sent home from the suddenly canceled NCAA tournament in Albuquerque.

In April the Navajo Nation was hit hard by a Covid-19 outbreak that began in Arizona and quickly spread, exacerbated by underlying health conditions and the lack of running water at so many remote homes on the reservation. With infection and death rates approaching those of New York, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a new Navajo Nation rapid response team of medical professionals, tribal leaders, and state officials. Ironically, Doctors Without Borders is now aiding the Navajo people and other tribal nations in New Mexico in the absence of a coordinated federal response.

If you’d like help the Navajo Nation cope with the pandemic, connect with Make Santa Fe at makesantafe.org/covid; they’re coordinating PPE relief efforts with University of New Mexico, Meow Wolf, and Southwest Research and Information Center.


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