Navajo artist creates skateboards featuring female warrior images

By Natasha Kaye Johnson
Gallup, New Mexico (AP) 9-07
Jolene Nenibah Yazzie remembers as a young girl how she and her little sister Janene were awed by the abilities of the comic book superhero Wonder Woman.

They were fascinated by a number of other female super heroes, but they dazzled with Wonder Woman’s long black hair that reflected their own and were infatuated by the strength and exuberance she possessed.

“But we always wanted to look up to Native super heroes,” remembers Jolene Yazzie.

Being as there were no American Indian super heroes – and no American Indian female super heroes at that – Yazzie would eventually create her own.

Yazzie takes out a skateboard with the image of her first Native women super hero, Ko’ Asdzaa, translating to “Fire Woman” in Navajo. It will be the first image in limited edition series of skateboards designed by Yazzie.

The intensity and fierceness in Ko’ Asdzaa’s eyes is grabbing, and her long black hair underneath the plume of feathers upon her bonnet signify that she’s a warrior. Her feminine features are highlighted with the traditional silver necklace she wears. Ko’ Asdzaa is only one of several female warriors that Yazzie has created.

“Each woman has a weapon that they specialize in like a bow and arrow, spears and a hatchet,” Yazzie explained.

She plans to name the other unique women warriors. “Their name has to be sacred,” she said.

Yazzie’s artwork landed her a debut opening recently at the Native Vinyl Art Show opening at the Pop Gallery in Santa Fe.

“It took a lot to draw her,” Yazzie said, whose newly launched skateboard company is called Asdzaan Skateboards. “It didn’t come to me in one day.”

For the past 10 years, the idea of creating skateboards has been formulating in the back of her mind. But like many artists, her passion developed over the years.

At 12, Yazzie was drawn to skateboards. She spent much of her time as a young girl hanging out with her brothers, Jonathan and Jonas. She would tag along with them during their skating excursions and escapades.

Throughout her high school years, Yazzie continued to skate and found herself reading comic books and thrasher magazines. It was during this time Jonas began pushing her in the direction of drawing.

“He’d throw me something and say draw this,” recalls the 28-year old artist from Lupton. “I said, ‘I can’t draw this. You’re crazy.”’

But she would draw, and eventually gained a knack for artwork. She continued skating throughout high school, but stopped shortly after graduating.

After high school, she began taking graphic design courses at Collins College in Tempe, Ariz., where she began to develop her own unique style. She knew she wanted to create designs for skateboards, but she just didn’t know of what.

Yazzie was 21 and at a point in her life where she was trying to polish her style as an artist when her sister shared a shocking secret that she kept bottled up for years.

“When I was 16, I told my family about being sexually molested for over eight years by a family member,” said Janene Yazzie. She said the abuse began when she was 3 and continued until she was 10.

Before telling her family, Janene – now a junior at Columbia University in New York – told her sister what happened.

“I cried,” Jolene said. “I felt like I let her down. I should have been there taking care of her.”

A few months later, Janene told her mother and the rest of the family about the abuse, with the support of Jolene. But they were shocked when a majority of the family decided to ignore the situation and chose not to talk about it.

“It tore our family apart,” said Janene, who admitted she went into depression after being disowned by some of her family members.

But Yazzie said they remained strong with the support of their mother, who began to open up about some of her own experiences and hardships. It was a difficult time, but the experience is what ultimately inspired Jolene Yazzie to create the female super heroes. Her parents, Laura and Jackie Yazzie Jr., encouraged her talent.

She credits her idea of creating American Indian super heroes to her mother and sister, as well as her sister in-law, Sophia Yazzie.

“It was because of their strength,” she said. “It just came all together that way.”

Yazzie wants Native women and young girls to recognize that the images of the women she has created can be found within them, and that they are capable of overcoming anything.

“I just want to give women that power back,” Yazzie said.

She hopes that young Native girls will also use the board to take on skating themselves.

The idea of a female warrior seems so natural to Yazzie, especially because of the obstacles that many American Indian women overcome, like rape, abuse and domestic violence.

“It came a lot from our history, like where we come from as Navajo people,” Yazzie said. “It seemed like nobody gave credit to the woman warriors.”

For years, women have served as warriors, upholding the household and raising the children, Yazzie said.

While she feels strongly that the images will help to empower women, she is also anticipating criticism. One older Navajo man, Yazzie said, has already expressed his belief that women should not be dressing like male warriors.

“She’s not trying to do something radical here,” said Janene Yazzie. “It’s a way of showing our inner women strength and preserving our culture.”