The Life of a Navajo Artist, Soldier, and Preacher: Ernest Franklin

This piece is transcribed from a personal  interview recording of a respected Navajo elder from my home church in New Mexico, Ernest Franklin. It briefly chronicles his life. Ernest,  well-known for his artwork and skilled in several mediums, lived an incredible life and touched the lives of many others. This is his story. I enjoyed recording and transcribing it. Ernest, I look forward to seeing you again one day. -Rob 

 

I was born in the Tohatchi area. I was raised there as a small child and at Twin Lakes. My family was what you would call nomadic, we moved here and there with the sheep. My grandparents raised me for the most part. This was just after World War II and my Dad worked at the Wingate Ordinance Depot for the Army.

 

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At the time that I was growing up I was mostly up at the hills and in the woods. We rarely saw automobiles, but we heard automobiles. We didn’t see them too often because we were quit a ways from the highway, and occasionally, there would be an airplane that flew over and it was fantastic. Sometimes my father and mother would come out in an old truck that they had and we would go to the nearby trading post and we would spend sometime there. Most of the time there were just people visiting there. There was no rodeo, there was no TV, and there was no way to communicate with the outer world. People would gather at the trading post to communicate about what’s going on in their area. Mostly we were traveling on horse back. That was our main transportation at that time. This was, you know, way back in 1949 through the 50’s. So I grew up not knowing any type of technology. Just whatever nature presented was my education. I spoke only Navajo; I never spoke any other form of communication or any language.

 

NAVAJO CHILDREN EXAMINE THEIR FAMILY PICK-UP T...
NAVAJO CHILDREN EXAMINE THEIR FAMILY PICK-UP TRUCK – NARA – 544402 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So that was all the way up until the time that I was old enough to attend school. That was when I was six years old, I guess. We came back out into the flats and there was a day school at Twin Lakes. I grew up without communicating or playing with my peers. I didn’t have contact with other children, only my aunt and uncle. They were already beyond their teenage years. I was just alone all the time. When they put me into school I could not play with any other children. Most of the time I tried to isolate myself away from people, but they’d come meddling around, so I was occasionally, not occasionally, but constantly getting into fights, almost everyday. I had to keep whatever belongs to me, you know, and I didn’t understand anything about sharing. So it was just what belongs to me belongs to me. I grew up that way, and as I understood it later, I had completely lost my childhood. I was herding sheep at four years old and riding horses at five years old, not for pleasure, I was doing chores, important chores, you know? By the time that I was about six years old I could hitch up horses to the wagon, you know, put in the harness and everything. And I’d go and drive the wagon to a nearby water hole, a well, and I was bringing in drinking water in fifty-five gallon drum-barrels in the wagon. So I grew up that way. And in the winter time, after I was sent to day school, my mother came back to Twin Lakes and I was waiting there.

 

2311F2CA65First, I was in a dormitory. Before my mother came back to Twin Lakes, I was in the dormitory and I hated it, because there were so many rules. I couldn’t follow the rules and I was getting into trouble over almost nothing. After my mother came back to the Twin Lakes area to live, I was the oldest of my tribe, my tribe of brothers and sisters. I did a lot of daily chores. In the winter time, you know, there’s chopping wood, and bringing in firewood, and so forth. The well would be frozen and there was no place to get water. When it snows you would go and be sent out into a vast open space where there’s no trash or where there’s no animal trash, or whatever and you’d take kind of a tarp thing, I would say about…maybe… eight by eight square feet, and you take this cloth and then a dipper and dip out clean snow upon the tarp. And then you’d bring that in over your shoulder and you’d put the snow in an oil container or five gallon drum and thaw it out. And that was your drinking water. That was also your laundry water…everything. When there’s no snow you still go out to the well and you go way down into the hole and break up the ice. You bring up the ice and put it in the barrel and thaw it out again. It was a hard life, but you know, if it’s been taught to you to survive that way…you just had to take it very cheerfully. Otherwise, you won’t have any water or you won’t have anything. So I grew up that way. I know a lot about survival.
Then I started to go to school and other places. I went to another boarding school in Twin Lakes up until fifth grade. Then from there I went to Guamerco which was a public school. I went there up until seventh grade. And then I went to school here in Gallup and got all the way through eighth grade, then finally, too, through junior-high in Gallup. And then from then on I was not into sports and this multicultural thing was hard to get used to so I was still constantly in trouble with other types of people, other students. Well, it kind of affected my grades, and my attendance and so forth. So again I went to boarding school in Albuquerque; Albuquerque Indian School. I went through high school there.

 
After completing high school I worked a little bit here and there. And then I was waiting to go to Durango, Colorado to go to school. But Uncle Sam, I think, corrupted that idea. 6RWCCDCYLQSo I went and took some armed forces tests. And before I knew, January 2nd was my time to get inducted, so instead of induction I volunteered for three years. Three years of my life was spent serving Uncle Sam and doing whatever training, and then also dragging around a thirty-seven pound machine gun, called an M60. It was a unique experience but it was also devastating to some parts of my life, and it also kind of affected a lot of things. The remainder of my military tour of duty was later spent in New Jersey, and even though I went through high school and part of the armed forces, I had the opportunity to go and educate myself. So I kind of took some technical classes and I came to find that there were a whole lot of changes that were taking place in the world around me, and I came to be interested in some of the technologies and doing art work and I became an illustrator through those experiences. After completing my tour of duty I came back and started working. After that short time of employment that whole business was coming to a close. So we were sent to other boarding schools and then from there I was involved in working as a dormitory attendant until there was an opportunity: somebody was needed to carry on kind of an instructional type of work. Since I had been trained as an illustrator and also had been kind of a decent artist, I was put into a temporary teaching position in place of an art teacher who was leaving because of health from Wingate High School. I was there for a year and then I went back to school at New Mexico Highlands University, where I studied art education. Then later, I came back to work as the art teacher at Wingate High School for the next twenty-seven years. Throughout life I have come to witness a lot of changes, even in education. Native Americans were into electronical and technological things that they were learning. I came to work with a few of them. I have been a rancher ever since the day that I was born, I guess. And I had to work with cattle, horses, and sheep up until now.sheep

 

I had a rough life after the military. There were so many things that I went through that were very-very difficult because I thought that I served my country with dignity, I thought I served my country with pride. But when I came back from Southeast Asia there were demonstrations. There were people that were actually wearing military uniforms and they were calling them names, baby-killers, and woman-killers. There were no parades to receive us. So I understood that what I had done had no honor. So up to now I can’t even attend a veteran’s organization. It made a big impact on me and my pride. While I was going through college, everyday almost, I had to defend myself mentally and physically because of hippies.

English: Uncle Sam recruiting poster.
English: Uncle Sam recruiting poster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The hippies in these schools were demonstrating against the war. That put me under so much pressure, what they call the post traumatic syndrome, I was right in the middle of it. It still affects me up to now. It’s a terrible thing; you serve your country and then when you return you get dishonored. It shouldn’t be that way. As I witness today, there are people coming in from Bush’s war, full of honor. In my days…it just…it hurts me. People try to cheer me up, but it hurts beyond all that.
I gotta be honest; I didn’t meet Irene right across the table anywhere. She had a boyfriend. The boyfriend was my friend. So every time he came to the school, I would be sent to inform Irene that Tony was there and that he would like to see her. That’s how I met Irene! At one time she was selling tickets to raise money for school. She was selling movie tickets, so I helped her sell those movie tickets so later on I had the opportunity to have a little date in that movie. And that’s how we meet. And then from there on we were just friends for quit a while until I got into the military service and I was being sent out to Southeast Asia. So we got married in the court-of-law in Cook County, Illinois, in Chicago. That was 1963. There was no telling whether telling if you would be shipped out to Southeast Asia and then return home.

 
We had a child while still in the military after I served overseas. We came back and in 1965 we had our son. Then when I got out of the service we had three more. The first one was Ernest Junior. The second one was Harland, then Derrick, and Farrell, the last one. They are all pretty much on their own now. Two of them, Junior and Farrell, are in electronics, working with Navajo tribe on the reservation. One is the head of telecommunication. The other works with computer networking and so forth in schools, in chapter houses, meeting places and so forth. They’re into technology. The other one, Derrick, has just completed his masters in education and is now in the San Diego school system in California. He’s working as a counselor, an education counselor. Harland is in Chanler, Arizona, with the Maricopa, or something like that, in the tribe where he’s a chairman-officer for working that area. They have two little children, which I adore, my little grand daughters.

 
Like I said, most of my life, I lived a crazy, mean, angry life, basically from growing up without a “childhood”, and growing up just with adults. I developed this behavior of not socializing with my peers. Up to now, I cannot stand places that are crowded, especially around Christmas when you go to the mall and places to trade, sell, or buy. You have to stand in line and that’s not my thing. I’d rather do any kind of shopping where you don’t have to stand in line. I’d rather just be as far away as I can. My isolation had ruined a lot of my life. It made me become an alcoholic and a drug addict. I lived an alcoholic life for so many years. I can’t really remember how many years. In 1972, my mother-in-law had a lot to do with my salvation through Christianity. Before I became a Christian I learned something about love. I had a mother and I had a grandmother who had loved me. That was not the same type of love. This type of love where one had to deny themselves and to serve you, to give you comfort and peace and encouragement. So, my wife’s mother was like that. You would go to her house in the middle of the night and she would get up and start preparing something warm, something to eat, to serve you. Then after she’s served you, while you’re eating, she’d go back into the back room and prepare a place for you to sleep. And then she would always call me her son, never by my name or whatever; never like a stranger. I learned about that kind of love through her.

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Around 1972, she was stricken with cancer, and I knew I would never have any other type of love that she showed, from anywhere else. So I started helping her, at the hospital, all the way to her death I was beside her, dragging her and carrying her and taking care of her. After that we were all lost, my wife and I, we were lost. There were places that had tent revivals and we started to go there because one of the ministers there helped us some, but with prayer, and with care. He really helped us, so, I returned to the camp meeting where I meet him and I started listening. At the end of the week there, I waited for that one
minister to speak, and as I did, he began to preach the love of God. It was the same type of love that I had experienced and I clung on to it, and I wanted more of it. I followed every kind of church gathering and meeting as much as possible. I even almost slept where the minister was all the time. I spent a whole lot of time in his truck bed, in his front room, taking every opportunity. Every opportunity with him was full of questions and answers. And for five years I followed that man. He gave me all he knew about the Bible and I stored. I ministered with him and pretty soon he sent me out to test me. photo-1423449866043-73b9a34cb270He sent me to give messages here and there and so forth, but we kind of had to separate. He was moving to another area and I couldn’t follow and from then on I started to do a ministry on my own. Right next to my house there was an old church where a minister had left and I kind of sat in as an instructor, not as a pastor, but just helping out the people, mostly elderly people. We had church there every Sunday, in the middle of the week and so forth, until
about 1986.

 
In 1986 my mother died, and I had to re-evaluate my life at that time, and as I was at my mothers bedside she was stricken with some sort of heart ailment, that caused her to go into a coma while I was trying to help her. In those times that I was helping with her, I wanted her forgiveness because I had hurt her so many times, in so many ways. I wanted to know if she could hear me, so I asked her to blink her eye, squeeze my hand, or move her toes, but she couldn’t. There was no response. So after she died I gave my last message at the funeral service. After that I kind of stepped aside from doing church work and I felt that I wasn’t doing anything good anymore. At the same time I started a cowboy church at rodeos and my Christian brothers and sisters had a lot to do with me backsliding, because they said ‘what are you doing with the word of God, carrying it into sinful places. You should be in a church’. So they weren’t helping me. I decided that if God is not answering me, then why should I be doing this? So I turned my back and left the church and I went back into my sinful ways for a period of ten years. Then around 2000, I was often attending Native Bible Fellowship, where I now am an Elder in the church. I started going there a little before 2000, and up ‘til then, I hadn’t really dedicated my life back to Christ. So finally, I was in the gutter, really at the bottom of everything, and I decided one day that I would go back into the church and serve my Lord again. After that, I came back and now I am serving as an adult Sunday school teacher and a substitute preacher, and am sober, praise the Lord.P2IQDFK9VC

 

People have related to me that I had a special talent, and I am not really aware that my artwork is a talent. It’s just something that I have developed. I don’t think I was born with it. It’s just that you understand yourself and you apply your understanding.

 
Then you work on it, you bring out what is best in that area and develop it. So I developed the type of artist that I am, and throughout my experience I learned to work with just about anything that could be studied or worked at. IMG_3403I am a sculptor, a saddle maker, a leather caster, a welder, a painter, anything that has to do with design and artwork; I applied it to my life and I tried to practice it to the point where I could be better than my
neighbor. There is still a lot to learn, there is still a lot to practice. I became a book illustrator because you learn to see what other people see. You learn to feel what other people feel, through their writing through their poetry or whatever. You learn to feel exactly what other people are thinking or feeling, then you try to put it into a form of art that could be enjoyed by other people, who see the same thing as what I saw.

-Ernest Franklin

 
Much thanks to Irene, who drove Ernest there since he couldn’t while recovering from heart problems. And much to Ernest as well, for letting me share his inspiring story. I came to know both of them around 2001, at Native Bible Fellowship. There, Ernest “substitute preaches” for my father and helps out in many ways. He has six siblings in all, most of whom attend the same church. This piece was recorded at Earl’s restaurant in Gallup, or as Irene called it, “The Place-Where-People-Shake-Their-Heads”. Thanks again to them, for being a blessing and inspiration, and for allowing me to do this piece. -Rob Scarbro, 2008

4 Comments

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  1. I knew Erni as my artr teacher way back 1976-77. Like many Vietnam returnees I also didn’t know he was a US Vet 2 other teachers also never wore military outfit. Any I was able to talk with him short time before his passing I was interested in one particular project he headed up in art class students got involve later Walt Disney took up the cartoon project title “SQUIRREL HEAD”! Animated into a live Disney studios with several Navajo students. It was on those small films back them 8mm or 16mm cant recall which one I was just a freshmen back then. Film Project was brought back to the High School for number of years but was lost when new age of technology took over those films. It was a school project it belong with the school was what he told me over the phone. 😦 School buildings has been destroyed everything in it! SO SAD Think im the only one who recall that spec project went down! dayea

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert,

    Thank you for this post. My dad, who owns a trading post in Thoreau, NM, knew Ernest and loves his artwork, especially his rodeo cartoon pieces. I met Ernest briefly at a navajo trade show in Red Rock a few years ago. I remember feeling the love of Christ around him, and seeing light in his eye. What a joy this man was and a treasure to my father.

    In recent years, dad has tried to find prints of Ernest’s work but has not had an easy time of it. I drew dad’s name for Christmas this year and would really love to purchase some prints for him. Do you perhaps know where I can find some prints of Ernest’s rodeo cartoon pieces? Any help you can offer will be a sincere blessings.

    Thanks and best to you.

    Tara Beam

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