Considerable Talent and Great Promise: the Early Years of Navajo Artist Beatien Yazz

Today’s post is written by Cody White, National Archives at Denver, with special thanks to Gwen Granados; National Archives at Riverside, John Seamans; National Archives at San Francisco, and Theresa Fitzgerald; National Archives at St. Louis

“…I had the pleasure of seeing some of the paintings of Beatin [sic] Yazz. He is a young Navajo of considerable talent and great promise.” A heady compliment in itself but even more so that it was delivered by a titan of the photography world, Ansel Adams. Adams was so impressed by the young Yazz’s work when he passed through the Navajo Nation in 1944 that three years later he felt compelled to write the Bureau of Indian Affair’s head of education a series of letters stating as much.

This correspondence was forwarded to the Southwest Area Office of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and today can be found in Record Group 435 – Records of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board at the National Archives at Denver. But who was Beatien Yazz, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 84? Did his “great promise” come to pass? Given locally the Denver Art Museum’s considerable Native Arts Department holds several of his works and nationally the National Museum of the American Indian also has many paintings, textile samples, and pottery created by Yazz, the answer is probably yes. But that is the end of the story; for the beginning of his story we turn to Record Group 75 – Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and learn more about the early years of Beatien Yazz.

While generally a researcher can find the entirety of a BIA agency’s records within one National Archives field unit, the expansive nature of the reservation means Navajo records are actually shared between the National Archives at Denver and the National Archives at Riverside. The earliest mention of Beatien Yazz within the National Archives is found in the latter, in the form of a census card filled out only months after his birth on May 29, 1929 in which his name is listed as Hoska Ye Ta Das Woot. This name, along with the spelling of his father’s as Joe Tode, is repeated throughout the Southern Navajo Indian censuses taken in the 1930’s that can be found online at Ancestry.com. We know this is Yazz because of his census number; during this era name changes among the Navajo were common and as the census numbers assigned never did change, they are useful in tracking an individual.

The 1937 census sadly states that Yazz’s mother Bah passed away September 4, 1937 and this is reiterated in his 1943 application to the Santa Fe Indian School, noting it was due to tuberculosis. This application is part of his Santa Fe Indian School student case file and is the earliest record we have here in Denver for Beatien Yazz, now going by the English name of Jimmie Toddy. While he had attended the Wide Ruins Day School for six grades prior to the transfer, like many BIA day schools those records were not saved nor forwarded along with him as he changed schools.

Bureau of Indian Affairs student case files are closed to the general public until either 75 years have elapsed or the student dies, so with Yazz’s death it is opened after only 73 years. His application to the Santa Fe Indian School lays out some of the basics of his early life noted above and also that along with his siblings John, Fay, and Mary, he grew up near Chambers Arizona. The application asks the reason for the student wanting to attend and the Santa Fe Indian School’s reputation for fostering native artwork must have reached Yazz as he states on his application the desire for “special training in artwork.” As the grades show from his 7th grade year, art was Beatien Yazz’s calling.

Application, page 1_ 1943_ Box 73_ Student Case Files, 1939-1962 (National Archives Identifier 1136337)

School Application, page 1; Student Case Files, 1939-1962 (NAID 1136337)

Memo_ October 22, 1943_ Box 73_ Student Case Files, 1939-1962 (National Archives Identifier 1136337)

Internal School Memo; 10/22/1943; Student Case Files, 1939-1962 (NAID 1136337)

Excerpt from student record_ 1944_ Box 73_ Student Case Files, 1939-1962 (National Archives Identifier 1136337)

Excerpt from Student Record, 1944; Student Case Files, 1939-1962 (NAID 1136337)

Yazz’s tenure at the Santa Fe Indian School ended in 1944 when he transferred to the Fort Wingate Vocational High School. Our records are then silent on him until early 1945, when the book Spin a Silver Dollar was being readied for publishing. Written by Alberta Pierson Hannum, Spin a Silver Dollar focused on the Wide Ruins Trading Post in Arizona owned by Hannum’s friends the Lippincotts and Yazz, by now starting to sign his artwork that way, is a featured character in the book also illustrated with his paintings. Hannum insisted on 15% commission from the book for the young man as well as another 15% for the Lippincotts but a problem soon arose; where was Yazz to sign the agreement?

Sallie Lippincott to Mr. Stewart_ January 6, 1945_ Box 28_ Decimal Files, 1936-1942 (National Archives Identifier 573452)

Letter to Navajo Service Superintendent explaining the book and the deal for Yazz. Sallie Lippincott to Mr. Stewart; 1/6/1945; 226.5 Jimmie (Beatien Yazz) 1945-1952 (NAID 7863878)

Within the series, Decimal Files, 1936-1942 (NAID 7863878) for the Navajo Service is the flurry of correspondence back and forth, trying to find him. The Fort Wingate Vocational High School had no information, as he had withdrawn from school on January 28th, 1945, and one note to the Navajo Service Superintendent J.M. Stewart suggested that Yazz was working for the railroad out in Winslow Arizona.

By July the pressure was mounting. Viking Press had scheduled the book for an October 1945 publication and Curtis Brown Ltd, a literary agent firm, needed a signature to move ahead with the financials. A few days after one particularly exasperated letter was sent in July 1945, Allan Collins with Curtis Brown writes again with a tip – there was a rumor Yazz joined the Marines underage and some folks are working on “getting him sprung.”

Alan C. Collins to J.M. Stewart_ July 19, 1945_ Box 28_ Decimal Files, 1936-1942 (National Archives Identifier 573452).jpg

Alan C. Collins to J. M. Stewart; 7/19/1945; Decimal Files, 1936-1942 (NAID 7863878)

According to his Official Military Personnel File, held by the National Archives at St. Louis, Yazz had indeed lied about his age, saying he was born in 1927, and joined the U.S. Marine Corps – when this letter was sent, Private Jimmie Toddy was in the 1st Recruit Battalion at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego California having enlisted May 25th. (Despite the literary agent’s idea, he was never ultimately “sprung” as he received an honorable discharge October 13, 1946).

On August 22nd, Stewart signed the agreement for Yazz and arranged to have the funds kept in trust by the agency, the first $75 being his cut of the book’s advance. By October another $112 rolled in as 581 copies were sold that first month. The book remained in print for at least the next several years as more royalty letters fill the file and inquiries continued to arrive at the agency, which also seemed to serve as a clearinghouse of sorts for folks looking to find Yazz. In 1947 the Mary Buie Museum in Oxford, Mississippi wrote looking to loan paintings. And later, the artist himself writes to the Veterans Administration, under his legal name of Jimmie Toddy, concerning a change of address for service member’s life insurance bills.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs records at the National Archives at Denver lose track of Beatien Yazz at this point. Returning home after his U.S. Marine Corps service, Yazz furthered his BIA schooling at the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nevada, his case file from which can be found today at the National Archives at San Francisco. Not only an account of his education, the file also contains records regarding his Marine service, his art, and possible commissions – it seems the artist was back at work. While further mentions of the life and times of Beatien Yazz may be somewhere in the holdings of the National Archives, the many paintings, shows, awards, and essays that can be found online all serve to show the artist he became.

This entry was posted in History, NARA beyond DC/MD, Reference, The Process and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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