Barry Moien never considered himself a great photographer. He was less into the artistic side of photography and more into the technical side, more George Eastman than Ansel Adams.

“I was a guy with a camera trying to make a living and get started in the business,” said Moien, who eventually found success running a custom photo lab.

But in 1971 Moien had just opened a photo studio in Hyattsville, Md., and when he saw a man named Jones Benally at Prince George’s Plaza, he knew he had to take his picture.

“Somehow or other I got the nerve to go up to him and I said to him: ‘I have a photo studio about a mile away from here and I would love to do some portraits of you,’” Moien said.


Benally was a Native American dancer from Arizona. A promoter had brought him to the mall to perform the traditional dances of the Navajo, also known as the Diné, a word that means “the people.”


“Photographing someone like him was out of the ordinary,” Moien said. “We did family photos. I did the granddaughters of the guy who owned the Ford dealership.”

Moien took Benally to his studio on Hamilton Street in Hyattsville and asked him to sit in front of a blue background. He took several photos with his Hasselblad, including one with Benally — slashes of paint on his cheekbones — wearing a crown of white and black feathers set in a beaded headband. It’s known as a war bonnet.


By the time Moien had processed and printed the photos, Benally had moved on to perform elsewhere. It was 20 years before he saw the portrait. In the 1990s, Moien heard that Benally was performing in Washington with his children. He dug out the negatives and asked an employee at his Custom Touch lab named Mike McLaughlin to make enlargements.


Moien went to the show and gave Benally some copies. The photos made an impression on Benally’s children, who hadn’t seen their father with anything but gray hair.

McLaughlin had made an extra print. He framed it and gave it to his daughter Jillian’s kindergarten teacher, Pat Heinz. On the back he taped newspaper clippings about the Jones Benally Family Dancers. Maybe, he thought, Heinz could use it in the classroom.


And that’s how a photo of Jones Benally, a Navajo hoop dancer from Arizona, was used for more than a decade every fall when Heinz talked with her students about Thanksgiving.

“I think they too were struck by the beauty of the picture,” said Heinz. “It just really made everything more real for them.”

When Heinz retired a few years ago, she gave the photo back to McLaughlin. He knew exactly what he’d do with it: pass it on to his daughter Jillian O’Brien, now a teacher herself.


“I’ll have to make it my own,” said O’Brien, who teaches fifth grade in Howard County.

And the man in the photo? On Tuesday at noon he’s performing with his children and grandchildren at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium. On Monday night, daughter Jeneda and son Clayson are performing at Rhizome DC with their two-person band Sihasin, a Navajo word meaning “hope.”


Benally remembers the photo.

“At that time, we traveled to all the shopping centers,” he said last week on the phone from St. Louis, en route to Washington. “We danced all over the world.”

He remembers the war bonnet, too. “That was passed on from my grandfather,” Benally said. “His name was Water Buckskin .”

Many people have seen Benally perform. He’s in a children’s book, too, Jeneda said.

“It’s so interesting that so many educational institutions have kind of adopted my dad into their classrooms — which is wonderful, because he is a teacher,” she said. “He’s a teacher of traditional Navajo culture. . . . When we talk to kids, my dad talks a lot about how we’re all brothers and sisters and how important it is to respect each other and understand each other.”


Benally is in his 90s, though his family is unsure of his exact age. And now he’s back in Washington — or “Washingdoon,” as some Navajo call it.

“Washingdoon is the place where a lot of the legislation that has impacted our people came from,” said his son Clayson. Some of the government’s worst policies — from boarding schools to genocide — are “kind of summed up in that one word.”

The portrait, Clayson said, is “a very accurate portrayal of how our father is, how he traveled all across the world and has basically been an ambassador for our people.”

What does Jones Benally want those who gaze upon his face to think?

“The people are still here.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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