Thursday, December 2, 2021

Navajo Art: An Interview with Ernest John

Artist Ernest John at home.

Navajo Art: An Interview with Ernest John

by Gina McKnight with Tamara Martin

No duplication with permission. From the November 2021 issue of Florida Equine Athlete.

“They don’t make cowboys like Ernest anymore.”


Many years ago I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with Tamara Martin. An Ohio native, Tamara now resides in Arizona and is passionate about Good Dog Rez-Q, a non-profit organization that helps abandoned animals on the Navajo Nation. Tamara is the author of the best-selling children’s book Bluebird: Dog of the Navajo Nation. The illustrator for Tamara’s book is American Navajo and horseman, Ernest John.

Tamara writes, “I went to visit Ernest yesterday at his modest home on 160 acres in New Mexico. We had a good time! I brought him a bunch of old tack that I can no longer use - saddles, bridles, wagon harness and miscellaneous. Ernest gave me one of his original drawings in exchange. He wants to know when you can visit him. The closest airport is Albuquerque. It would be the adventure of a lifetime, having Ernest teach you the horse-training techniques he learned from his father. They don’t make cowboys like Ernest anymore.”

It would be wonderful to visit with Ernest and talk about horses. I would love to see the Mustangs and other breeds that Ernest expertly trains. Besides horses, Ernest is a professional artist, creating still art as well as pottery. From his professional portfolio, here’s Ernest’s bio:

Ernest John was born in December of 1956. His father, Nelson John, showed him how to train horses when he was just a boy. Ernest began to sketch horses and other animals at that time. After graduating Gallup High School in 1976, Ernest began painting with oils and acrylics. In 1989, his sister-in-law, Mary Watchman, suggested that Ernest begin drawing on pottery and showed him how to do that. By 2002, he was producing pottery which included his acrylic designs as well as custom etching and texturing. His pottery is featured in many galleries and museums. In addition, Ernest was commissioned to paint several outdoor murals. The first one is behind the Rex Museum in Gallup, New Mexico and was completed in 1999. It shows a Navajo Warrior on a hunting trip. Two additional murals were painted in Red Rock State Park in 2001 and 2003. One illustrates a bull-rider and the other depicts “head and heel” team-roping. Today, Ernest lives in Yah-ta-hey, New Mexico with his wife, Arlene and seven children. He is still creating his pottery and paintings as well as training horses.

Welcome, Ernest!


GM: Ernest, it’s great to share your story with the world. When did you meet your first horse?

EJ: My experience with horses began as soon as I could hold onto my dad’s coat and sit behind him in the saddle. By the age of six, I was riding alone, helping to herd sheep. Every morning the sheepdogs and I would take the herd to the edges of the 160 acre property. Every evening we would bring the sheep back home and put them safely into the corral for the night.


GM: I have seen a video of you in action training horses. You have a soft hand with big results. When did you begin training horses?

EJ: I began training horses for neighbors when I was 14, with my father supervising. I learned to be patient and he taught me some simple ways to show the horse that I’m the boss without hurting or scaring it. Mainly.....

1. Circling them in the round pen 

2. Making them back up with just the pressure of your hand

3. Just using the halter and lead rope, I ask the horse to make tight turns with me as if he’s chasing his tail.


GM: As a seasoned horseman, do you favor one breed over another?

EJ: I think the best all-around horse is a combination of Mustang and Quarter Horse. The Mustang can run long distances and the Quarter Horse provides the people-friendly bond.


GM: I don’t know if everyone is familiar with the term “Rez” which refers to the Native American Reservation. What about Rez horses and dogs? 

EJ: I’ll talk about Rez horses a little. Sometimes when a family has too many horses, they can’t feed them all. There is sparse grazing for horses, especially around the populated areas which were overgrazed a long time ago. Many people don’t want or can’t pay for the stallions to be castrated. So there are many “stray” horses who band up and live rich, healthy lives as long as there is access to water. Of course this can’t go on forever so periodically someone (usually the BLM – Bureau of Land Management) hires helicopters to round them up into pens and sell them to the killers. The heartbreak is seeing the foals get left behind or injured in the frightened dash of the adults to flee the copters. No one comes for these babies. 

Stray Rez dogs share many of the misfortunes of Rez horses. Not wanted. Can’t feed. Can’t afford vet care. Not pretty and tame. They die by the hundreds every day of starvation, injuries and disease. The Navajo Nation is the size of West Virginia and has only three veterinarians. They take care of large and small animals and must make frequent house calls. Until there are more veterinarians, there is just one way to handle the needs of the vast Nation. Mobile clinics! Mobile clinics can spay/neuter/vaccination, they just need a place to park! I wish we could contract ten of them for the next five years. 


GM: Do you have advice for those looking to purchase their first horse?

EJ: I’ve never bought a horse, all have been given to me. Some were given as trades for training.


GM: Your drawings and art are beautiful. I understand you began drawing at an early age. When did you realize you wanted to become an artist?

EJ: I started boarding school at age six. It was far away so I only got to come home to Ya-Ta-Hay for holidays. It was in school that I began drawing and I was lucky to have the encouragement of a kind art teacher.


GM: What makes you happy?

EJ: Art and horses make me happy. I’ve stepped away from pottery and would like to paint murals again, like the one I created at Red Rock Amphitheater outside of Gallup, New Mexico.

Red Rock Amphitheater outside of Gallup, New Mexico

Ranch Life: Ernest John

Original Art by Ernest John

Original Art by Ernest John

Ernest at his ranch.

Original Pottery by Ernest John

Ernest John

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful article. In a short space it's easy to gain respect and admiration for the multi-talented Ernest John. His art and life's accomplishments are impressive, authentic. And then you read of his love of horses and sympathy for the poor animals that don't survive the Rez and it's heart breaking. Leaves a lasting impression. Thank you Ernest John for all that you do to add beauty to a hard world. And for your kindness and respect of horses.

Stuff & Nonsense: Introducing Celeste Parsons, Ohio Writer

Greetings from southeastern Ohio! My name is Celeste Parsons, and I live here on a 48-acre former dairy farm with my husband Jim, our Westie...