FARMINGTON — Sunny Dooley laughed and cried as she spoke on Wednesday afternoon to a small audience at San Juan College.

The Navajo storyteller shared stories about her families and how she became an artist during the first-ever Survival of the First Voices Festival. The festival, which continues through Friday, brings Native American artists from around North America to San Juan College to inspire Native youth.

Dooley called the festival revolutionary, explaining it is produced by Native Americans for Native Americans and deals with Native American issues. She said it is also revolutionary because it takes place in Farmington, a city with a rocky history concerning race relations.

Asia Soleil Yazzie performs a dance routine on Wednesday during Survival of the First Voices Festival at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College
Asia Soleil Yazzie performs a dance routine on Wednesday during Survival of the First Voices Festival at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College in Farmington. (Jon Austria / The Daily Times)

"This is a city that has always been divided by a river in more ways than one," said Dooley, who lives in Vanderwagen, which is south of Gallup.

On Wednesday, Dooley started by telling a story about her mother, who was also a storyteller. When her mother first got sick, Dooley went to care for her, and she ended up taking care of her mother for 27 years.

Using both the Navajo language and English, she recounted her mother's last week alive. The day before her mother died, Dooley cleaned her mother's room, placed fresh sheets on her bed and fluffed the pillow.

"She never came back to her room," Dooley said.

She spoke about closing the path to the south of the house, so the ancestors to the north could come and take her mother home. Afterward, she looked to the north every night, trying to spot anyone.

But not all of Dooley's stories were sad. She spoke about when she was crowned "Queen of Navajo Nation" after a beauty pageant in the 1980s. She received a call from an Irish woman in Manhattan. The woman asked her if she needed a passport to visit the Navajo Nation.

Jokingly, Dooley told the woman to collect signatures from tribal delegates to secure passage to the Navajo Nation. To her surprise, the woman did just that. She collected 13 signatures before a delegate caught on.

Sculptor Oreland Joe, of Kirtland, speaks on Wednesday during the first-ever Survival of the First Voices Festival at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San
Sculptor Oreland Joe, of Kirtland, speaks on Wednesday during the first-ever Survival of the First Voices Festival at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College in Farmington. (Jon Austria / The Daily Times)

"Why am I telling you these stories?" Dooley said. "I'm telling you these stories because you can't run from what you came from."

Universally, heroes come from less than perfect places, she said.

"Stop being the victim," she urged the audience. "Take it and make it your strength."

Before Dooley spoke to the audience, sculptor Oreland Joe spoke about his art.

"Art is magical. It touches. It feels. It's my life, and it's the life of many other people," he said.

Joe, who is from Shiprock but now lives in Kirtland, has built monuments across the country. He uses European methods to create Native American-style art. He said he specializes in the Navajo culture because "it's here. It's what we are."

He learned European methods while touring Europe with a dance troupe after he graduated from high school. He has also traveled to Japan to look the country's art.

When a member of the audience asked him how different cultures have influenced his art, he replied, "Techniques are basically the same, young man. All we're doing is reinventing the wheel."

He said sculptors tend to create images from their own cultures.

Another audience member commented on a sculpture Joe created that is now displayed in Window Rock, Ariz. The sculpture depicts a Navajo Code Talker and was briefly displayed in Gallup before moving to Window Rock.

Joe told the audience about a time he saw a woman cry as she looked at it. He said she got down on her knees and touched the feet of the code talker.

"I almost fell over, and I thought, 'That's my job right there,'" he said. "I'm only the messenger."

Check out the schedule of events at survivalofthefirstvoicesfestival.org

Hannah Grover covers news, arts and religion for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and hgrover@daily-times.com. Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.