Below is a chapter from my book Shadows on the Mesa-Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond which was published in 2012. Between Two Worlds focuses primarily on Adolph Bitanny (aka Adee Dodge), a well-known but very underappreciated Navajo artist.
Nancy Mattina is currently working on a biography about Dodge. Nancy is the author of Uncommon Anthropologist-Gladys Amanda Reichard and Western Native American Culture. It is interesting that Nancy first became familiar with Dodge because of his work as a linguist in the 1930s with Reichard under his given name, Adolph Bitanny. This is just one example of Adee’s ability to navigate successfully in different worlds.
As we shall see, although I didn’t know it when I was writing the book, I could not have chosen a better title for the chapter.
If anyone has any information (anecdotes, images, etc.) about Adee Dodge they would like to share with Nancy we would encourage you to contact her at email@example.com.
One day in the early 1960s the owner of Arizona Picture Frame in Phoenix (known only as “Jack”), was busy wrapping a recently purchased Adee Dodge painting for a female customer. As he was finishing, a tall, gruff looking Navajo man entered the store. Initially unsettled at the man’s appearance, the woman’s demeanor changed immediately when Jack explained the man with the large sombrero and piercing eyes was the artist of her newly purchased piece. Excited about the opportunity to meet the artist in person, she approached Dodge and began speaking in broken English, not realizing the Ivy League educated linguist was fluent in her language. She asked him directly, “You paint picture?”
Dodge folded his arms, his face betraying little emotion, and responded, “Uggg, me paint. You buy?”
The exchange went on in similar fashion for several minutes. It was inordinately difficult for Jack to keep from laughing out loud. Yet somehow he maintained his composure, saying nothing, allowing Dodge to have his inside joke until the customer left.
It was the type of situation Dodge relished. Like James Swinnerton, Adee Dodge was a first rate raconteur, one who could keep his audience captivated for hours. Blessed with charisma and a well-developed sense of humor, he was once described as possessing “the infectious merriment of a gnome, with the universal inner knowledge and love of a Tibetan holy man.” He was the rare type of individual many remember fondly and in detail decades later –even those who only met him once.
Not surprisingly, many years later it is difficult to separate the myth from the man. But as is often typical of such characters, the real individual is much more fascinating than the self-cultivated–at times outright fabricated–image.
After visiting Kayenta in the spring of 1934, the following year Dodge, still known as Adolph Bittany, completed his four year enlistment in the National Guard. In 1937 he enrolled in the Masters program at Columbia University’s School of General Studies where he spent the next two years specializing in comparative linguistics. Although he did not finish, he completed significant work at Columbia, assisting Navajo culture and customs scholar Gladys Amanda Reichard with her research and writings on the Navajo Chants.
Why he left Columbia without acquiring his degree, or where he spent the subsequent two years, is unknown. The author could find no records of any activities or employment until three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor when Dodge enlisted in the Army Air Force.
Exactly what Dodge did during the World War II years are a subject of dispute and conjecture. According to his enlistment records, in late December of 1941 Dodge was “Single, without dependents”, and his Civil Occupation was “Gunsmith.” His official service record indicates he initially served as a “Radio and Teletype” Operator for “Flight Duty,” at Hammer Field in Fresno, California. It was also around this time that for obvious reasons Dodge started going by the first name of Adee, a shortened, modified version of his given name of Adolph.
From 1942 until the end of the war, service records list his duties as a Contracting Officer at Army Air Force bases in Fort Smith, Arkansas; Dallas, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri and finally as an inventory manager for the government contracts with Higgins Industries in New Orleans, Louisiana. He eventually rose to the rank of Captain.
Official military records indicate his entire career was spent state side as a Contracting Officer. But according to many, Dodge, known to claim it was he who “won the war and not John Wayne,” told tales of flying P-38 Lightenings and serving as a code talker in combat in the South Pacific. His more spectacular “war stories” included detailed accounts of being shot down on three different occasions before finally being taken prisoner by the Japanese, where he later escaped from a prison camp by decapitating a guard with a machete.
Given that his versions of events vary wildly from the Army’s written accounts, it would be easy to write off his yarns as just more examples of the wild anecdotes he sometimes used to entertain his audiences, except his Separation Qualification Record dated September 10, 1947, states Dodge “made a very confidential contribution to the war effort in the joint Army and Navy communication, threw (SIC) the use of Navajo language in combat.”
Why the significant discrepancy?
Nanabah Dodge-Grogan, Dodge’s adopted daughter, believes her father was instrumental in the writing of the Navajo Code Talkers codebook for the United States Army Air Force. Although not as well known as the Marine Navajo code talkers, who have subsequently received the publicity and acclaim, the Army Air Force also employed a team of twenty-four Navajos in the Solomon Islands. Using voice codes in their native tongue, the team handled telephone communications between the Air Commander and various airfields in the region. Although both the Air Force and the Marine codes were based in the Navajo language, they were different.
Dodge-Grogan’s belief in her father’s confidential contributions to the war effort is plausible. At the outset of the Second World War, the Navajo’s unwritten language was understood by fewer than thirty non-Navajos. The size and complexity of the language made the code extremely difficult to comprehend, much less decipher. That a Navajo, Ivy League educated linguistics specialist would provide significant assistance in the writing of the code book does not seem improbable.
Having noted both the recorded and the unsubstantiated aspects of Dodge’s war time service, the author has no strong opinions on the validity of his code talker or combat stories. Suffice to say the claims should be treated with caution. What is known for certain is Dodge returned from the war determined to leave a legacy of beauty to the world. In that he succeeded.
In the 1930s, while Dodge was studying anthropology at the University of New Mexico and later helping to document elements of his own culture at Columbia University, the first of a new generation of American Indian artists were being trained in Santa Fe.
In September of 1932, Dorothy Dunn launched the first formal educational program for Native American artists when she established The Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School. Prior to The Studio’s founding, art instruction was actively discouraged or even prohibited in America’s Indian schools. It was a practice driven by the belief that encouraging the students’ artistic creativity would impede their successful assimilation into Anglo culture.
Dunn, a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, was a progressive, determined to liberate her students from a “stupid, sometimes apparently vicious policy at the hands of government agents and by the broadside impact of an alien culture.” She held strong opinions on the direction she wanted the school to take. In an abrupt departure from prevailing educational methods, she was adamant her pupils build on their traditional artistic heritage. To Dunn, this meant a style that was based largely on the two dimensional, narrative portrayals that for centuries could be found everywhere from cave drawings to pottery to hide paintings.
Dunn also believed her students had a latent ability that precluded them from having to learn fundamental skills such as perspective and color theory. All they needed was time, materials, and encouragement.
The result was a heavily stylized school of painting that typically portrayed major cultural events such as dances, hunts, and ceremonies, always executed in a flat technique and almost always with opaque watercolors.
During the first decade, The Studio produced over thirty notable artists from a dozen different tribes. Noted Navajo alumni included Quincy Tahoma, Harrison Begay, and Andy Tsinnajinnie. Their style could be categorized as genre. All chose to focus on their own land and people, and their paintings successfully capture the various aspects of Navajo life that largely define the Dineh culture: ceremonial singers and dancers, hunters, weavers, shepherds, deer, antelope and horses.
However while artists from the other tribes isolated their figures with little or no backgrounds, the Navajo painters distinguished themselves by setting their subjects in the vast, remote landscape of their sacred homeland. And unlike many of the Anglo painters, who frequently chose to cast the figures as small or even insignificant against expansive skies and terrain, the young Navajo painters placed the people and animals front and center, always the dominant aspect of the painting.
In retrospect, Dunn’s legacy and approach has been criticized and praised, both inside and out of the Native American community. In the 1960s, when a new generation of expressionist American Indian artists exploded onto the scene, the work of the Dorothy Dunn School painters was frequently derided as “Bambi art.” (Accordingly, the work of the new expressionists was frequently referred to as “Smashing Bambi”.)
Chiricahua Apache Allan Houser, perhaps the most renowned American Indian artist of his generation, later condemned his teacher’s approach for training all of her pupils “the same way… Her style lacked originality and creativity.”
Conversely, Geronima Montoya, who took over for Dunn in 1937, a position she held until the school’s closing in 1962, noted Dunn “did a lot for us. She made us realized how important our own Indian ways were, because we had been made to feel ashamed of them. She gave us something we could be proud of.”
Dunn herself considered The Studio to be the second phase of the “Santa Fe Movement,” an “enterprise” she claimed was “founded on intelligence and goodwill.” It began in 1919 with Taos Society founders Blumenschein and Phillips “calling attention …to the unrecognized treasure of Southwestern Indian art.” Over the next two decades the movement blossomed and helped American Indian Art gain acceptance and acclaim in commercial, critical and institutional circles.
Regardless of the opinion one holds of Dunn’s methods, what cannot be denied was her role in facilitating an international following for high end Native American art. Many of her pupils went on to notable and lengthy careers. Along with Mary Russell Ferrell Colton, she was one the most influential figures in expanding the appeal of the category beyond the inexpensive souvenir and curio markets, elevating the stature of and giving long overdue prestige to the original American art.
After being discharged from the Army Air Force in 1947 a hard line was drawn in Dodge’s life. Three years later he formally changed his name from Adolph Dodge Bitanny to Adee Bitanny Dodge. It was also around this time he remarried (his first marriage had ended in divorce with no children sometime in the 1930s).
Little is known about Maria Delubis, Dodge’s second wife (including the correct spelling of her name.) Delubis, who Dodge frequently referred to as “Mama,” was an Illinois native of Polish descent. She allegedly was once married to a prominent member of the Pillsbury family of baking products fame. It was an association the Pillsbury family was quick to end after Delubis married Dodge, an unfortunate but not surprising reaction given the social mores of the 1950s. A formally trained artist who had attended the Art Institute of Chicago, Delubis was instrumental in helping the self-taught Dodge to develop and hone his skills as a colorist, an area where he eventually excelled.
While the fundamentals of painting may have taken time for Dodge to develop, there was never any doubt about his choice of subject matter. As mentioned previously, Dodge believed the Navajo culture he knew and loved was rapidly disappearing. He felt certain that within two to three generations it would be all but assimilated into the Anglo culture. Beginning with his earliest paintings, the purpose of his work was to document and interpret the Dineh’s religion, or the sacred chants.
One of the few Navajo artists versed in the sacred tribal chants that have been passed through the Dineh’s generations, many of his paintings have lengthy explanations of the imagery written on the back in his own handwriting.
Dodge’s compositions were formulaic, at times to the point of being simplistic, but were also deeply symbolic. Many of his paintings had a rainbow colored Yeibachai across the top. All of his paintings included one or two birds. The square shouldered bird, a bluebird, was often accompanied by a swallow, designated by the swept back wings. In ancient Navajo history, the two birds symbolized the eastern or seagoing people and the western, or swallow people.
Every color, each dot, and each feather held significance. His personal trademark was the roll-of-hair symbol of the Navajo people, below which he would sign his name and date the painting. The hair roll held a meaning which could aptly be applied to his personal life as well: between two worlds.
Dodge claimed to have “never taken a course of any kind in art” although, as mentioned earlier, he was tutored by his wife Maria, who had formal training and who frequently chose the colors for his mat boards. Undoubtedly he was influenced by the Dorothy Dunn School, but whether from a personal preference or simple commercial considerations is not known. It was possibly a combination of both. At first glance his work appears to be very similar to the two dimensional style of his Dunn trained colleagues. The inclusion of the two birds in all of his paintings was a technique copied from Quincy Tahoma, one of Dunn’s star pupils. Tahoma died in 1956, two years after Dodge’s earliest known work.
However, closer inspection reveals Dodge possessed both a more adept ability to portray motion and a more skillful use of color than typically found in the work of his tribal contemporaries.
In an April, 1961 review of one of his exhibitions, Douglas Hale in the Arizona Republic noted that instead of “developing from a native into a more Europeanized manner, Mr. Dodge appears to be doing just the opposite, to be becoming more aboriginal in the simplicity of his approach.” In comparing him to his Navajo contemporaries, Hale wrote “Quincy Tahoma’s pictures…usually contain many figures and are illustrative beside Dodge’s…both Harrison Begay and Andy Tsinajinnie use many more figures …implied or actual, it is pronounced.”
Dodge’s tempera and watercolor paintings first began appearing in Arizona in 1954. Over the next three decades he became a frequent visitor to various businesses in downtown Phoenix and Tucson. While selling his work out of the trunk of his car, he became friends with many of his repeat customers, who referred to him affectionately as “Chief Dodge.”
Dodge possessed a good marketing aptitude, as well as a keen insight on how best to assure the continuation of his legacy. He was selective about the clients he cultivated. Cognizant of the importance of his art and its historical significance in documenting the Navajo religion, he typically sought out doctors and lawyers, believing they would be more likely to appreciate and preserve his work. His visits to their offices in Phoenix and Tucson became an annual event for many, usually in the fall.
His introduction was typically straightforward, “I’m Adee Dodge. I’m a Navajo and I’ve come to show you some of my pictures.” His appearance and patient, gentle demeanor rarely gave one reason to believe they were meeting an exceptional man in any way. Yet most who came to know him well found a much more complex, worldly and intelligent individual than first impressions indicated.
Dodge’s focus on the preservation of his work was not limited to his chosen clientele. Presentation and conservation was also given priority. For his paintings, he would buy thirty-two by forty inch pieces of mat board and use the two inches on the perimeter for testing colors. He would then cut up the remainder of the board in various dimensions, usually cutting the pieces into fourteen by nineteen or ten by twelve inch segments instead of the more common dimensions of sixteen by twenty or eight by ten. His rationale was simple: sixteen by twenty inches was a standard frame size; fourteen by nineteen was not. Making his paintings an uncommon size assured the buyers would need to spend more to purchase a custom frame. A custom frame would not only enhance the painting’s aesthetic appeal, but a custom frame maker was also more likely to employ conservation friendly materials and techniques.
By the late 1950s Dodge’s work was gaining commercial and critical success. So Proud the Blue Stallion, appeared on the cover of the July 1959 edition on Arizona Highways. His paintings were included in Walter Bimson’s Valley National Bank Collection, which featured at the time the largest assembled collection of Arizona based artists. He received a mural commission for the Administration Building for Arizona State University.
Arizona State University Professor Emeritus Dr. Harry Wood proclaimed Dodge “the best of the Navajo painters” in 1963. He attributed Dodge’s artistic success to “natural talent, the inherent Navajo sense of color and form, patience, and the working of an incisively keen mind.”
Despite the creation of a large body of work based on the traditional Navajo religion, Dodge seemed conflicted or uncertain about his personal beliefs.
He once came close to becoming a practicing Catholic. During his years at Bacone Junior College, a private Baptist school, in the early 1930s, Dodge believed the president, Doctor Weeks would frequently “preach directly” at him during sermons in an effort to convert him to the Baptist religion.
Uninspired by the Baptists, he soon found a small Catholic parish close to campus where he would sometimes attend Mass. He recalled in later years he felt a sense of ease around the services, noting “the Catholics… they are just like Navajos or like Pueblos…they are doing something holy but you can’t understand what they are doing.”
Dr. Weeks never managed to convert Dodge. “I kept telling them, I’m a Catholic. I was not really a Catholic, of course, I was never serious about any religion on earth. Grandfather (Henry Chee Dodge) was baptized. I don’t remember if I was baptized. Anyway, I went to a Baptist College as a Catholic. I came out as a Catholic, shook hands with everybody as a Catholic.”
He also professed a strong familiarity with the tenets of the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints, claiming to have traveled regularly with a Book of Mormon in his possession. However he became less enamored with the religion in the early 1960s, when he felt the Mormons had sided with the Hopi over the Navajo in the long-running land rights dispute around Black Mesa.
For most of his adult life Dodge was a resident of his home town of Wheatfield, Arizona. In 1977, when his eyesight began weakening, he rented a small house on 32nd Street in Phoenix where he spent the winter months. The round trips from Phoenix to Wheatfield soon became increasingly difficult as both he and his wife were in declining health. The Phoenix home became then became their full time residence as well as a stopover for all the relatives in the Dodge family.
By the early 1980s Maria’s terminal condition required Dodge’s full time attention. This combined with his own declining eyesight to end his artistic career. Maria died in 1984. Burdened in his later years with severe diabetes, Dodge moved to Albuquerque with Nanabah, his brother’s daughter, who he had adopted in the 1950s.
Adolph Bitanny Dodge died in Albuquerque on January 4, 1992. He was buried in the National Cemetery in Santa Fe. As with many of his favorite yarns, the newspaper obituaries were an entertaining combination of fact and fiction, but without dispute was the Albuquerque Tribune’s attribution of his artistic success to his “unique simplicity and expression.” It also noted the accomplished historian, linguist, and artist as being among the “finest of Navajo painters.”
(Note: Although Adee frequently referred to Henry Chee Dodge as “grandfather” he was not related by blood. It was customary in traditional Navajo culture to refer to someone who was respected and looked up to as “grandfather” or “uncle.” Henry Chee Dodge was the last Head Chief of the Navajo Tribe and one of the most beloved leaders in Dineh tribal history. It is likely that Adee both knew Henry Chee Dodge personally and considered him a significant influence.)