Navajo artist honours his heritage by fashioning hats and reinterpreting classic art

Lehi Sanchez celebrates and shares his Navajo heritage through his hats and his artwork.

Lehi Sanchez’s blended artworks are about ‘shifting the storyline through representation’

Lehi Sanchez celebrates and shares his Navajo heritage through his hats and his artwork. (Submitted by Lehi Sanchez)

Folded carefully inside Lehi Sanchez's hat are messages from his family — "Good medicine," his father told him — to keep them close while he travels.

The outside of the hat is wrapped with a leather-bound chain of commemorative coins — one for each member of his family — and an eagle feather, attached as a poignant gift denoting both his name (he goes by his given name, Lehi ThunderVoice Eagle, in his artistic endeavours) and his legacy.

"My father always told me that a man needs a hat to be recognized," he said.

Sanchez's father, who is Totonac from Mexico and his mother, from the Navajo Nation, live in Arizona and provide wilderness therapy for at-risk youth through the ANASAZI Foundation, which Sanchez's father co-founded in 1988.

Until Sanchez decided to pursue art full time in 2014, he often assisted his parents in their work, which in the merciless sun of Arizona requires a hat.

Now Sanchez is celebrating and sharing his Navajo heritage with both his Native American peers and the rest of America through his hats and his artwork.

After years of making hats for friends and family, Sanchez had the opportunity to showcase his creations in a fashion show for designer Bethany Yellowtail and that's when the demand soared and created the business model he has today.

Sourcing vintage wide brim hats from all manner of places – vintage stores, markets or dusty old attics, Sanchez cleans them, steams them and shapes them. Once they have been renewed to his specifications, he decorates, using pieces appropriate to Navajo heritage and culture.

"The Navajo way is to treat the Earth and its elements as sacred," he said.

Repurposing leather from bags, saddle straps and airplane upholstery, he then incorporates crystals, feathers, sweetgrass, tooled silver and other accoutrements. Each element is tied to his Navajo ancestry; the leather is recycled to show respect to the Earth and the animal that was sacrificed for the material.

His current line is sold out and he has plans for "a new direction, a new line" soon.

'Shifting the storyline'

Complementary to his fashion line, Sanchez's artwork takes some of the world's most recognizable pieces and blends them with his activism — re-imagining them as an ode to his people's past and future. He said his process is about "shifting the storyline through representation."

"It is a way that allows the viewer access to a history they are comfortable with, then the challenge of shifting their focus to a history that many have attempted to disregard and hide."

Sanchez's most recent piece is based off of Gustav Klimt's The Kiss. He said the piece gave him "the opportunity to display a beautiful balance between Father Earth and Mother Sky."

"So much about the image Klimt created resonated with me. The tender kiss of a father to a mother. As a Native people we were told to watch nature and learn. We watch Father Sky and Mother Earth kiss ever so tenderly every morning and night. Not a day goes by without it being witnessed.

"This is how our people tried to live. Creator gave us reminders every moment of the day. All we had to do is look and witness and follow."

Sanchez says his Starry Night 1491 conveys 'a sense of hope.' (Lehi ThunderVoice Eagle)

His Starry Night 1491 (yes, that's one year before Columbus arrived in North America), featuring teepees spread across the infamous landscape created by Van Gogh, focuses on "the before."

"There's a lot of power and emotion in that [original] painting, and the image speaks louder than what I can say," he said.

"It's not just a sense of commentary, but a sense of healing one way or another, and a sense of hope."

Re-interpreting Iwo Jima photo

Other pieces include Sacred Beginnings, a re-imagined The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo and Water is Life, which mirrors the Flag Raising of Iwo Jima photograph.

Water is Life is about the camp at Standing Rock in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline. (Lehi ThunderVoice Eagle)

"The image of Iwo Jima was created to help others understand what was happening at Standing Rock," he said.

"Ira Hayes, a Native man seen in the original image of Iwo Jima, left to fight in World War II at a time when his people, the Tohono O'odham, were fighting for their water rights in the Phoenix valley.

"He went to war fighting for a country with hope that things would be better for his people, while 70 years later at Standing Rock our people are continuing to ask for the same, basic rights to clean water."

The act of creating and reclaiming is allowing "conversations to be had about who the Navajo are, and what will become of them in the future," he said.