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Charlie Willeto (1897-1964)


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Charlie Willeto was a Diné (Navajo) medicine man who turned folk artist near the end of his life. It was not until 1961, four years before his death, that he began carving the wood figurines for which he is now so famous. Willeto would take his carvings to Mauzy’s Trading Post near Nageezi and trade for provisions. 

Willeto has been known as Alfred Willeto and Charlie Willeto. The latter is his name, but it is not uncommon for a Navajo to choose a second name when venturing to do something different than that of his profession, in this case, a medicine man turning to creating art. Perhaps the fact that his upraised arms carvings resemble representations of the Navajo supernatural Yei was foremost in his mind when he chose to carve under an assumed name rather than that of his medicine man name. 

It is estimated that Willeto carved only some 400 figures during his brief time as an artisan. It is understandable that his figures with upraised arms somewhat resemble figures seen in Navajo sandpaintings. Willeto was quite familiar with such figures since he was a medicine man. Also, as a medicine man, he could portray these forbidden elements from Navajo religion and then heal himself from the effects of having done so. 

At first, Willeto used his wife’s natural dyes intended for use in dying wool for the rugs she was weaving. These tended to be absorbed into the wood and eventually faded. He then reverted to the use of house paints, sometimes applied with paintbrushes and sometimes applied with sticks.

 

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