Category: Pub: Article / Paper
Details: Mark Oppenneer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2009)
Keywords: , , , , ,

In 1966, Sol Worth (professor of Communication from the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania) and John Adair (professor of Anthropology at San Francisco State University) set out to find “what kind of visual and temporal style and aesthetics might [the] Navajo use if they were trained to use the camera” with the goal of discovering how they might “lead our eyes to ‘see’ their world from a Navajo perspective.” The study operated under an assumption that the particular patterns revealed in the Navajo films would “reflect their culture and their particular cognitive style” (11). This paper seeks to revisit and assess that assumption by using Leuthold’s notion of “indigenous aesthetics” as a lens. To do this, we will tackle two questions: What does “indigenous aesthetics” mean? And what were the findings of Worth and Adair – and do they stand the test of time?

What does “indigenous aesthetics” mean?

In the introduction to his work, Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media, and Identity, Steven Leuthold uses the term indigenous aesthetics to refer to “thoughts about aesthetic experience that developed independently of the Western tradition in various parts of the world: ideas about art held by indigenous peoples.” He acknowledges that the term ‘indigenous’ has two meanings which are both equally important, that of “aesthetic practices that express place attachment” and that which “refers to people who are minorities in their own homeland, who have suffered oppression in the context of colonial conquest and who view their political situation in the context of neo-colonialism” (2).

Leuthold’s definition of indigenous aesthetics is useful in that it conveys an open sense of place that is not limited only to geography but can include spiritual place, ancestral place, and so on. However, I would broaden the meaning of the term from “ideas about art” to a more holistic notion of aesthetic experience, one that emphasizes the artistic expression of worldview. This is consistent with the way Worth and Adair believed “the images, subjects and themes selected and the organizing methods used by the Navajo filmmakers would reveal much about their mythic and value systems.” The two “felt that a person’s values and closely held beliefs about the nature of the world would be reflected in the way he edited his previously photographed materials” (29).

It is one thing to define indigenous aesthetics, but quite another to isolate its parts, capture it in motion, translate its meanings. To do this with filmic images, “it becomes necessary . . . to find or formulate some of the patterns, codes, rules, conventions or even laws by which such communication takes place” (Worth & Adair, 21). If we are to understand how moving images communicate expressions of worldview, we must conceive of them in some way as a language with some mode of translation. This is not to say that there has to be a direct correlation between film and linguistic forms at the level of symbol such as grammar and syntax. But perhaps there is some usefulness in thinking in terms of phrasing, vernacular, poetics, rhetoric, or even mythos:

In some ways this kind of analysis calls to mind the analysis of myth and folktales which has long been a part of anthropological and humanistic research. One searches for common themes and common relations or structures between thematic events. Instead, however, of using verbal utterances as our sole datum, we are using what might be called visual utterances” (143).

Although Worth and Adair situate the idea of “film as language” in the context of prior scholarship (21), the anecdotal vignette they relate about the post-screening interviews with several Navajo community members is far more revealing. When asked about two of the more complex films (involving non-traditional subject matter) created by the Navajo filmmakers, one woman said, I cannot understand English. It was telling all about it in English which I couldn’t understand. Another response was: That picture was also being explained in English. The reason I didn’t get the meaning is because I can’t understand English (130). These responses would appear simple and straightforward were it not for the fact that the Navajo films were silent. Although we don’t know today whether the statements were spoken with humor or disdain, they do suggest that the moving image conveys meaning that can be understood on the order of a visual language. This, in turn, implies that a viewer who does not understand the visual language will miss cues that would lead to comprehension of the aesthetic expression, be it indigenous or otherwise.

Those comments were made by two Native people who had never seen a film before which is understandable considering that in 1966, television had just made its entrance into the Navajo community at Pine Springs, Arizona (where Worth and Adair conducted their research). Today, the likelihood that a person living in America (Native American or not, urban or rural) could reach adulthood not having experienced a visual medium is highly unlikely. In the nearly 50 years since the Navajo films were made, media has become so ubiquitous that one would be hard-pressed to find a community that hasn’t been exposed to the “language of film.”

What were the findings of Worth and Adair – and do they stand the test of time?

When Worth and Adair came to Pine Springs, they brought four Bell & Howell cameras and an array of gear and editing equipment. They spent several hours teaching six members of the Navajo community there only the technical aspects of filming: how to load film, control exposure, operate the camera, and so on. The idea was to give the students the technical knowledge, but not the method or creative process of filmmaking: “Even asking the students what they were planning to do would place heavy values on certain attitudes about film. It would imply first, that a film had an idea or was about something, and second, that one could think about it or plan it” (81). The limitations of the technology they were using shaped their experience considerably. To keep costs low, no sounds equipment was used and the film was effectively rationed. Also, because the film had to be sent away for processing, it was two days before the filmmakers were able to see their rushes.

Had this study been conducted with today’s technology, Worth and Adair would simply have handed out six digital cameras along with 15 minutes of instruction on how to point and shoot. The films produced by the filmmakers would be not be silent 16mm black-and-whites, but rather high definition, full-length, full-color digital works with sound. That being said, what we see now as the limits of their technology in many ways served to focus the outcome of their work on the production of filmmaking rather than the product. In other words, the endeavor was not about making a high-end blockbuster with special effects, it was about the process of capturing and ordering moving images.

Through their observations of that process, Worth and Adair identified several aspects of the Navajo filmmakers’ narrative styles that were suggestive of an indigenous aesthetic. Of note were two such aspects that will serve to illustrate how aspects of the Navajo worldview were communicated through film: the attitudes and practices involving walking and face close-ups.

Walking was a convention common to several of the Navajo pieces. At one point, out of frustration with the preponderance of walking scenes, Worth wrote in his journal “When they don’t know what to do they show somebody taking a walk” (146). Later, Worth and Adair would come to realize that walking was not some sophomoric technique, but rather an important feature of Navajo culture:

Not until we saw the films, analyzed our interview materials, and went back to the literature on the Navajo did we understand the mythic quality of walking as an act. For the Navajo, walking was an important event in and of itself and not just a way of getting somewhere. We expected the filmmakers to cut out most of the walking footage-but they didn’t. It was the least discarded footage. In questioning them, it became clear that although they didn’t verbalize it, walking was a necessary element to a Navajo telling a story about Navajos (146).

As Worth and Adair revisited Navajo myths and stories in preparation for the writing of their manuscript, they found repeated evidence that walking played a central part in the aesthetic experience of the Navajo as revealed in song and ceremony. And even though, in 1966, the Navajo drove more frequently than walked, they appeared to be “going back to a traditional form of behavior in order to show how they see the world” (150).

Face close-ups, or rather the lack of them, were another point of interest for Worth and Adair. They discovered, “The Navajo do not use face close-ups, except in very limited circumstances. Most shots are either cut off at the head or show the head turned away from the camera” (152). The researchers concluded that the reason for this was two-fold: “Navajos generally avoid eye-to-eye contact,” and “Staring at someone or looking him ‘straight in the eye’ is a form of invasion of privacy and a transgression of Navajo interpersonal behavior rules, unless it is done for clearly humorous purposes” (156).

Aside from the visual motifs identified above, there were other, process-oriented indicators of the Navajo worldview. For example, the authors point out the way that Susie (one of the filmmakers) works with her mother, a traditional weaver. At one point, Susie is teaching her mother how to use a camera. She tells her mother to be thinking about what she’s going to take pictures of before her mother has started to learn to use the camera:

This is consistent with the way Susie’s mother went about the process of weaving. As Susie described it, ‘When a weaver gathers roots and berries for the dyes she is already thinking of the design. She is thinking of the design in her head when she is preparing the wool-and for everything she does-because the colors and the fineness of the wool are all part of the design-how you make a rug’ (114).

Worth and Adair use this example to illustrate how Susie’s process as a filmmaker is situated within a cultural framework learned from her mother.

The heading of this section asks if Worth and Adair’s findings have stood the test of time. In some ways, the answer is yes. Despite Ginsburg’s critique that the project, “retrospectively, is seen as a somewhat sterile and patronizing experiment” (96), it was one of the first to put cameras into the hands of indigenous people, putting Malinowski’s notion of ethnography to the test. Despite the short-lived nature of the project (another critique of Ginsburg’s), it does provide a foundation from which to launch a discussion of indigenous aesthetics.

Although their findings still stand, Worth and Adair’s interpretations of the Navajo films nonetheless can be critiqued. Take, for example, the idea of walking as a mythically- and ceremonially-rooted expression of indigenous aesthetics. Worth and Adair provide a solid argument for the filmmakers’ use of walking as a necessary component of Navajo filmic storytelling, yet they do not once mention the historical importance of the Long Walk of to Bosque Redondo, or Hwéeldi, as it is known to the Navajo. This relocation of thousands of Navajo between 1864 and 1868 was a tragic chapter in their history – one that would likely have had as much an influence on their worldview as the origin story or Night Chant. The fact that this major aspect of Navajo history was overlooked by Worth and Adair shows how critical a part historical awareness plays in the ability of the viewer to fully understand and appreciate the “language of film.”

The Navajo taboo associated with filming a close-up of someone’s face was a serious consideration in 1966. However, as an expression of indigenous aesthetics, it is now nothing more than a quaint relic of the times. This is not a criticism of Worth and Adair’s assessment of indigenous aesthetics, but an observation of the temporal nature of visual vocabulary in general. Because the Pine Springs experiment was short-lived, it has frozen in time its value as a tool for understanding. Fortunately now, one can find the antidote to this by searching YouTube ( or IsumaTV ( to find 5,000+ present-day videos associated with the keyword “Navajo” – a wealth of filmic data to peruse and study.


Worth and Adair’s experiment does stand the test of time as a project that leads “our eyes to ‘see’ their world from a Navajo perspective.” The aesthetic we come to know is of the Navajo circa 1966 – certainly of historical value, but one that is tied to the time and place of its execution. It is an important work in that it could not be conducted in today’s media saturated landscape. One could not find indigenous subjects in America today who haven’t learned the language of film and hence become self-aware as media-producers. One could debate whether the experiment’s primary importance is as a lens through which to understand an indigenous aesthetic or as a prototype project that puts the camera into the hands of people who have typically been its subject as Rouch envisioned:

Tomorrow will be the time of completely portable color video, video editing, and instant replay . . . Which is to say, the time of the joint dream of Vertov and Flaherty, of a mechanical cine-eye-ear and of a camera that can so totally participate that it will automatically pass into the hands of those who, until now, have always been in front of the lens (13).

Works Cited

Dubin, Margaret. “From Artful Ethnography to Ethnographic Art: The Enduring Significance of the Navajo Film Project.” Visual Anthropology Review, 14: 73–80. 1998.

Ginsburg, Faye. “Indigenous Media: Faustian Contract or Global Village?” Cultural Anthropology, 6(1): 92–112. 1991.

Rouch, Jean. “Camera and Man.” Web. 23 Dec 2010. <>.

Ruby, Jay. “Speaking For, Speaking About, Speaking With, or Speaking Alongside – An Anthropological and Documentary Dilemma.” Visual Anthropology Review. Fall 1991, Volume 7 Number 2.

Singer, Beverly R. Wiping the War Paint off the Lens: Native American Film and Video. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2001. Print.

Worth, Sol, and John Adair. Through Navajo Eyes; an Exploration in Film Communication and Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1972. Print.