PHOENIX (AP) - Derek Micheal Begay was scrolling through Instagram one afternoon when he saw a post with a painting of someone who looked familiar.
The painting is of an elderly Navajo man standing in an open landscape with goats and a horse. He is glancing to his right and wearing a red long sleeve shirt, brown round hat with a strap around the base, blue jeans and a turquoise necklace.
Begay, 34, couldn’t place the man. He took a screenshot of the post and shared it on Facebook, asking family and friends if the man looked familiar. His family confirmed his suspicions.
The man was someone he hadn’t seen in 18 years - his late grandfather Sagane Begay, who passed away in 2001 at 96.
Begay wanted to see the painting in person, and so did his aunt Lela Irving, 64, one of Sagane Begay’s four daughters. The Instagram post of the painting advertised the Mesa Old West Show & Auction, held by Old West Events at the Mesa Convention Center on Jan. 25-27, 2019.
“We went and checked it out. She walked right up to it and was like, ‘That’s my dad,’” Begay said.
It is a beautiful painting, Begay said, but no one in their family knew it existed. When he returned to the auction on Jan. 26, 2019, he signed up to bid.
The painting, made by Prescott-based artist Ray Swanson, was valued between $25,000 to $30,000, said Brian Lebel, founder of Old West Events.
With a little money saved up, Begay said he hoped to put in a decent bid. But the longer he waited at the auction, the more he felt like the painting wasn’t supposed to be there.
“It shouldn’t exist, especially after my grandfather passed,” he said.
Begay said he asked one of the curators at the auction if she could take a video of him in front of the painting. He turned on Facebook Live and stood in front of the painting to say a few words. He told viewers who he was, how the painting shows his grandfather and its importance before mentioning his daughter and how Sagane Begay is her great-grandfather.
“I got a little emotional,” Begay said.
What happened next is a blur. Before he knew it, Begay turned around and took the painting off the hook. Now, he is facing consequences for his actions - ones he said he made out of deep emotion.
According to a police report, just before Begay took the painting off the wall he said in his Facebook Live video: “In defense of the Begay family and Indigenous people across the world, I want to reclaim this painting in the name of Indigenous sovereignty. Thank you.”
As he took the painting off the wall, Begay was stopped by an off-duty Mesa police officer working a security detail at the auction.
Lebel, Old West Events founder, said nothing like this has ever happened at one of his events.
“We didn’t know who he was or what he was doing,” Lebel said.
The police report details what happened next.
“I advised Derek he needed to put the painting back in which he responded, ‘This is my grandfather and they will not sell this.’ Derek continued to push towards the door. I again stopped Derek and told him he needed to put the painting back or he would be arrested for theft,” the officer wrote in the police report. “Derek walked back to the wall where the painting was taken from but refused to put the painting back on the wall. I explained to Derek that he could speak with management about the painting, but he refused to listen and kept a strong grip on the painting.”
At that point, Begay said he had about four people around him asking him to let go of the painting. He stood firm.
“I had a really hard time letting it go,” Begay said.
Lebel was concerned for the safety and welfare of the more than 700 people there and with the Mesa Police Department’s advisement, had Begay arrested “just to get him out of the room.”
Begay was arrested on suspicion of theft (a felony), disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing (both misdemeanors).
“It was gone and I was in jail,” he said.
Begay’s attorney, Mark Mendoza, said he should not be charged for this offense and the prosecution should be dropped because the family doesn’t believe Sagane Begay consented to be in the painting.
“It has extreme family and cultural significance to my client and his family,” Mendoza said. To the auction house, “it’s just a piece of property.”
Trial for this case is scheduled for Jan. 27 at 8 a.m.
“They charged him with all these offenses for something, in my opinion, there is no harm. There is no damage. There is nothing that happened to this painting that devalued it or changed it in any way,” Mendoza said. “I don’t think he should be charged, the prosecution should be dropped.”
Mendoza added that the charges allege Begay was taking property from another, but this isn’t really the property of another. Mendoza is basing this argument off one’s right to publicity and the cultural significance the painting holds to Begay and his family.
“More importantly, the cultural aspects of what property is to my client, his family and their culture,” Mendoza said. “Their property, their culture, their grandfather’s likeness should not be bought or sold.”
“This is his family’s property. This is his grandfather. This is his likeness, and someone else shouldn’t be is profiting off this and taking this and claiming this as their own,” he said.
According to the police report, Old West Events desired prosecution against Begay. When The Arizona Republic initially contacted Lebel however, he was surprised to hear about the charges against Begay. He said he did not hear from police about charges after Begay’s arrest. Prosecutors have reached out to Lebel about the case and informed him that he could be expecting a subpoena.
“That’s all I know, nothing else,” he said.
Lebel said the painting did not sell during the auction, despite reports of it being sold for $20,000.
Begay said he wasn’t thinking about what he was going to do with the painting. He just didn’t want his grandfather to be sold. He just felt like it was “me defending my grandfather in a room full of people who didn’t care about him or me,” he said. “It didn’t feel right, him being there.”
Growing up Navajo, he remembers being told “everything that was yours is part of your identity so that has to be laid to rest with you. It’s kind of the opposite of inheriting wealth.”
Begay remembers his grandfather as a man of few words, but when he did talk, everybody would stop and listen to what he had to say. Begay sees the painting of his grandfather as part of his identity, and it shouldn’t be sold off to complete strangers.
“I don’t think it should be in existence because he was already laid to rest,” he said.
Begay’s aunt feels similarly about the painting.
“My dad’s picture should not be out there,” Irving said. “We don’t think of him as a piece of art. Our dad is our dad. That is our flesh and blood. He’s our grandpa.”
Navajo families deal with death in various ways, said Grace Tracy, cultural liaison at Fort Defiance Indian Hospital. Many families choose to remove all traces of that individual after death.
“They want to erase everything because they no longer exist because they transition over to the other side,” she said. “You have no trace of any person’s belonging because they can come back for it. If they become angry, they can take you with them.”
Often families end up burning all the person’s clothes as well anything they touched, Tracey said. “It all goes back to emergence. You never look back you only look forward. That was the teaching. We always move forward.”
For some families, it’s different if the person does reach old age, which is 70 or older.
“When they die, any traces of them you bless yourself with it because you want to reach old age,” Tracey said. “It’s not a taboo from there on.”
Irving said few people could understand how she and Begay feel.
“I don’t blame him for what he did. He really loved his grandparents,” Irving said. “Nobody is ever going to feel how we feel.”
When Irving saw the painting for the first time, she remembers the hat, jewelry and clothing worn by her father in the painting. But, she didn’t recognize the background.
Begay said the painting’s landscape is not from around their home in Hollow Mesa, Arizona, about 35 miles east of Tuba City.
“I think someone might have taken his picture and then incorporated the background,” he said.
No one in the family recalls him ever posing for a painting. If Swanson got Sagane Begay’s permission, another family member had to have been there.
“He never spoke English. He never learned how to drive, he only rode horses,” Begay said.
The only time his grandfather left the Navajo Nation was when he was invited to perform a traditional prayer in Colorado, Begay said, and the whole family drove there. They stopped at a rest area along the way.
In family photos from the trip, Sagane Begay can be seen with his family standing by a red truck. He is wearing the same outfit seen in the painting. The only difference: the jeans and hat are black.
Begay said his family recalls a lot of tourists at the rest area, and think one of them may have snapped a picture of his grandfather walking by. Begay believes the pose seen in the painting might support this theory. The painting shows a profile of a Navajo man glancing at his right as if he is walking past something.
The painting’s creator, Ray Swanson, was known for his paintings featuring Navajo elders and children wearing traditional clothes. He was recognized by and served as president of the Cowboy Artists of America.
Swanson passed away in 2004 at the age of 64. His widow Beverly Swanson-Aylward told The Republic that her husband created a large volume of paintings. It does resemble work he did in the early part of his career during the 1970s, she said.
“I don’t remember the incident or where it was at or even if it was on the reservation,” she said.
Beverly said it is “very doubtful” Swanson took a picture of this person in Colorado because he was never really in Colorado. ”He pretty much stayed on the reservation,” she said.
In a 1975 interview with The Republic, Swanson said he stayed in touch with a number of families on the Navajo Nation.
“I have to find areas where I am the only bilagáana (Anglo) and families who know and trust me through long association and mutual respect,” Swanson said. “When I leave them, I leave postcards. They write and tell me about what’s going on and ceremonies they think I’d like to see.”
Swanson selected models for his paintings by roaming around the Navajo Nation looking for people to paint, Beverly said. He would often explore various communities by visiting the trading posts or attending local events.
“He would ask them permission. Sometimes they said yes and he’d pay them to model,” Beverly added. “Sometimes he would take pictures and then he’d paint them years later. He never took advantage of anybody.”
From what Lebel knows about the artist, if the man in the painting is Begay’s grandfather, “he was paid to be in it,” Lebel said. “You can’t walk into the Phoenix Art Museum and take a painting off the wall because it’s a relative.”
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