Navajo students painted ornaments that represent their culture for Utah’s tree across from White House

(Photos courtesy of Whitehorse High School) Students at Whitehorse High School in southern Utah made ornaments representing American Indian culture to be displayed near the White House in Washington, D.C.

On one side of the delicate ornament, Leyonah Endischee painted swirling white sweeps of snow blanketing the redrock landscape of southern Utah.

Each swipe of her brush coated the clear glass globe in color, creating a scene she has witnessed many times while growing up in Aneth on reservation land. In the center, Endischee added a Navajo woman wearing a traditional dress and gathering wood.

“I was trying to show how beautiful Utah is and how we always go back home,” the 15-year-old said.

Endischee, a student at Whitehorse High in nearby Montezuma Creek, was one of a handful of teens at her school chosen to create ornaments this year to be displayed across from the White House in Washington, D.C., and hung on a Christmas tree representing Utah. She and her classmates all made designs representing their native culture.

“I do like the landscape and I know the importance of that,” said Endischee, who is Diné, or Navajo. “I thought it was important to show what it’s like around here.”

Roughly 98% of the 250 students there, like Endischee, are American Indian. Each year, the Utah Board of Education selects one school to create the ornaments for a display where every state and the six U.S. territories have their own tree. This is the first time Whitehorse on the Navajo Nation has been picked, which was first reported by KUER-FM 90.1.

The students created 24 ornaments for the tree — plus a few extras to give to Utah leaders, including the governor and state superintendent. Many had vistas from the southeastern corner of San Juan County. One said, “Take pride in being indigenous.” Another had a hand imprint in red paint, representing missing and murdered native women.

Junior Xavier Martin used sandpainting, a traditional technique, to make two ornaments. The method involves pouring and manipulating colored sand onto a hard surface, something he learned from his dad. He painted a Zuni god on one globe and a Navajo god on another.

Other students molded clay and placed it inside their ornaments to create little 3-D sandstone scenes. Most painted the surfaces — both inside and outside the glass — with coyotes and stars and the traditional story of night and day. A few had patterns typically woven into Navajo blankets.

“They all took different approaches to it,” said Whitehorse art teacher Georgiana Simpson, who led the effort. “It was really interesting to see the way they tackled it.”

Simpson picked 15 of her best students across four classes to create the ornaments, starting in October.

Endischee, a sophomore, made four different designs. On the opposite side of the ornament with her painting of the Navajo woman gathering wood, she illustrated Monument Valley in the spring with tulips blooming in the red sand. Most of her artwork focuses on the split between seasons and how that changes the land. She wants to be an artist when she graduates from high school, mixing traditional designs with new digital techniques.

She also painted a girl staring at the night sky, surrounded by tall grasses, with an rock arch on the other side. Another included green and red patterns from her culture. And the last one had two girls running, one toward the sunset and and the other to the sunrise.

“There are a lot of wild places here,” Endischee said. “I like going out and seeing the stars and going to the mesas.”

She and her classmate Patrisha Weeker said they were surprised when they were selected to participate in the project. Weeker grew up in New Mexico and is part of the Laguna and Acoma Pueblo tribes. Her ornaments featured mountains and a starry sky like the one that she loves to look at in this dark, desert area of the state.

“I chose them because I’m new to the environment and that’s what stood out to me,” she said.

Both girls said it took them between a few days and a week to finish each design on their ornaments, which are about 5 inches from top to bottom.

Simpson believes the students were able to take pride in making the artwork, and in representing rural Utah and native nations — “which both often get overlooked.” This is her fifth year teaching at the school.

“We’re in such a little school in such a remote place,” added Whitehorse Principal Kim Schaefer, who oversees students in seventh through 12th grades. “And I’m amazed at the work our kids did. It’s thrilling to see their work on display in Washington.”

The Utah tree will stand with the other states’ displays surrounding the National Christmas Tree set up across from the White House.

The school’s participation in the tradition, though, comes as President Donald Trump has faced pushback by some indigenous groups. He most recently declared that November — which is Native American Heritage Month — would also be National American History and Founders Month to celebrate liberty and the Founding Fathers. Several native leaders countered that the move was tone deaf and erased indigenous voices.

But the students at Whitehorse see their work not as much political as foundational of who they are. Endischee said she’s glad her voice will be part of the holiday decorations in the nation’s capital where what she sees on Christmas morning — snow on redrock — will also be seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors glancing at her ornament.