Klah, Hastíín

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KLAH, Hastíín

KLAH, Hastíín (b. December 1867; d. 2 March, 1937), medicine man, weaver, ethnographic consultant.

Klah (Lefthanded) is more accurately transcribed as tl'ah; Navajos refer to him as Hastíín Klah using the Navajo term of respect equivalent to "mister" or "sir." Klah was born near Fort Wingate, New Mexico, shortly after the Navajos had been released from three years of confinement by the U.S. army. He belonged to a large and influential family; his great-grandfather was the prominent chief Narbona.

Klah's status as a nádleehí (lit., one who is constantly changing, used for both male and female berdaches, that is, "two-spirit" men and women) was acknowledged by his family sometime in his early teens. Although Navajo tradition portrays nádleehí as hermaphrodites, most probably were not. Klah's male anatomy was vouched for by Father Berard Haile, a self-trained anthropologist who observed him undressed during sweat lodge ceremonies. Cross-dressing was also a variable trait among nádleehí; Klah himself wore men's clothes. Described as "unmarried" by anthropologists and white friends, oral tradition remembers him as having sexual relations with both men and women.

Navajo mythology sanctioned the nádleehí role and an important deity was nádleehí. Consequently, nádleehí were believed to have special aptitude for religious pursuits, and many became medicine men (a male role). By engaging as well in such female pursuits as farming, sheepherding, pottery making, and basketry, they were often among the wealthier members of the tribe.

Klah's aptitude for memorizing the prayers, myths, and images used in religious ceremonies was apparent by the age of ten. With his family's support, he pursued extensive training as a medicine man. Not until 1917, at the age of forty-nine, did he consider his education complete. Whereas most medicine men mastered one or two ceremonies in a lifetime, Klah was qualified to perform eight; knowledge of several of these was lost with his death.

Klah also learned the women's art of weaving. During his lifetime, manufactured clothing replaced the traditional use of woven goods, but women continued weaving blankets for sale to a white market as rugs. In the 1920s and 1930s, as the aesthetic value of Navajo weaving came to be recognized, these items made the transition from the floor to the walls of museums and collectors' homes.

In 1914, Arthur and Franc Newcomb began operating a trading post near Klah's home in western New Mexico. Franc Newcomb, who dedicated one of her books to Klah and wrote his biography, became interested in the intricate designs of mythological scenes that he made from colored sand and other materials during ceremonies. With Klah's permission, she learned to memorize these and reproduce them on paper, eventually preserving hundreds of images. In 1919, at her suggestion, Klah produced a weaving with a sandpainting design. Such images were normally destroyed at the end of a ceremony, and to make them in permanent form was considered sacrilegious and dangerous. Klah, however, believed that his power as a medicine man could protect him, and he made over twenty of these large-scale tapestries, while his nieces made even more under his direction. Most were sold to museums and collectors. The attention they drew from collectors and the exceptional quality of Klah's work contributed to the transition of Navajo weaving from craft to fine art.

One of these collectors was the wealthy Bostonian, Mary Cabot Wheelwright. Her interest in Navajo religion led her to propose transcribing Klah's extensive repertoire of Navajo oral literature. This, too, was controversial from a Navajo point of view, but Klah was convinced of the value of preserving his knowledge. He collaborated as well with anthropologists Gladys Reichard and Harry Hoijer.

Klah traveled widely in the white world. In 1893, he demonstrated weaving at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At Wheelwright's behest he made trips to her homes in Maine, Santa Barbara, and northern New Mexico. In 1934, he returned to Chicago, where his demonstration of sandpainting at the Century of Progress Exhibition was observed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The arts proved to be one of the first areas in which Euro-Americans were able to perceive native people as equals, and exhibitions like these, featuring displays of native arts, marked a turning point in popular views of Native Americans.

When Klah's assistant died unexpectedly in 1931, he was too old to begin training another. Consequently, when Wheelwright suggested that his weavings and ceremonial paraphernalia be placed in a museum that she planned to build in Santa Fe, he agreed. These became the core holdings of the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art, later renamed the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. The museum opened in 1937, a few months after Klah's death from pneumonia at the age of 70.

Klah made a lasting contribution by seeking the preservation of his cultural expertise. His familiarity with so many ceremonies enabled him to synthesize divergent Navajo religious traditions and present them as a coherent system and a source of tribal unity. As Gladys Reichard observed, he had an intuitive and imaginative mind, which was receptive to new ideas and was orthodox without being conservative. He was very much a figure of the twentieth century, an avant-garde berdache.


Newcomb, Franc Johnson. Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Will Roscoe

see alsotranssexuals, transvestites, transgender people, and cross-dressers; two-spirit males.