Chana's World

An intimate portrait of a distinctive Tohono O'odham artist

Leonard F. Chana, who chronicled transitional and postmodern Tohono O'odham culture in bright-colored acrylic paintings and stippled pen-and-ink drawings, must have inherited his independent streak from his father, a hard-working reservation entrepreneur during a time when commercial foods, clothing and other items were becoming more popular among the O'odham.

In the affecting, beautifully illustrated oral history of the local artist's life and work, The Sweet Smell of Home: The Life and Art of Leonard F. Chana, his distinctive voice is paired with his even more distinctive art to create a very intimate portrait of Chana, who died of neurocysticercosis in 2004 at the criminally young age of 54. Anthropologist Susan Lobo, with the help of Chana's widow, Barbara Chana, edited hours of interviews Lobo did with the artist in which he talked about his art and his life. Lobo and Barbara Chana made a crucial decision to edit the interviews lightly, and let the artist's English-as-a-second-language phraseology and syntax come through. Chana's voice, once you get into the beat of it, is mesmerizing, and you can't help but turn the page.

Here, he vividly describes what life was like for his father and his father's generation, O'odham who hired themselves out to farmers and ranchers, working long, hard hours with time for little else:

"You have to get up early in the morning to get there by six o'clock to work all day, and then come back late at night, drop everybody off, come home, eat and go to sleep. And early the next morning get up and go again. ... Then coming back, somebody would want to stop in town, and next thing you know, some of them head for the bars right away, so it's hard to get them out of the bars to go back home. And tomorrow we'll be back again. He (Chana's father) finally quit, and he started selling different things like food out of his truck."

Leonard Chana came of age in the 1950s and '60s, and thus was able to watch O'odham culture changing before his eyes. He was a member of a kind of transitional generation. He remembers attending saguaro wine ceremonies, eating traditional O'odham food and learning about the past from the elders. He spoke O'odham as a boy almost exclusively. And yet he was sent away from home as a teen to California, to an Indian boarding school. He fell into "drinking and drugging," and watched as relatives and friends from his semi-traditional boyhood died young, or lost themselves in booze and violence.

In his 30s, Chana turned to art. He began the long, hard process of quitting drinking, and taught himself how to draw and paint. He also taught himself how to make a living as an artist, selling handmade cards and paintings depicting O'odham life. Eventually he started getting noticed. Byrd Baylor asked him to illustrate some of her books; O'odham and other Native American cultural groups asked him to make posters. He got famous, and became a kind of community leader and activist.

His best drawings and paintings are so detailed that, if all earthly evidence of O'odham culture were to disappear save Chana's work, it would certainly be enough to prove to future humans that the O'odham lived a good life there in that harsh desert land, and that they were a happy, industrious and wholly adapted people. His work is instantly charming, depicting cartoon-like (in the sense that they look like illustrations) elders and scruffy, barefoot kids, always with a puppy in tow, dancing, playing toka, harvesting saguaro fruit and generally doing what the O'odham used to do—and still do in some places. His work is often narrative in its scope, as all great illustration is.

Unburdened by a long cultural tradition of what an artist is supposed to do, Chana learned early on that he could hustle his way into a career. He had no qualms about working for hire, or for giving the people what they wanted. He learned from his father that a man with talent and energy could work for himself. Early on he made Christmas cards and other commercial works depicting O'odham life, and he felt proud when his customers admitted to framing the cards rather than sending them.

"I've seen so much of the baskets, how we use tools, our houses, what I could draw back then," he says in this essential book for anyone interested in O'odham culture, describing how he first started out as a professional. "I was just starting to see what I could do. I don't want to work for anybody. I don't want to get up at 7 o'clock and be there at 8."