Michael Chiago is one of very few Southern Arizona Indian painters to achieve national recognition. His background includes a stint as an Indian fancy dancer that included performing at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, barber school, and study in commercial art at Maricopa Community College. He was born in the Kohatk Village on the Tohono O’odham reservation. His tribal lineage is Tohono O’odham, Pima-Maricopa. The Tohono O’odham reservation is roughly the size of Connecticut with a population of about 27,000.

Michael is a veteran of the U.S. Marines whose tour of duty included Vietnam. He began his painting career in the early 70’s and is self-taught, although he studied commercial art at Maricopa Community College and worked as a commercial artist before setting out on his life adventure.


The welcoming appeal of his colorful paintings reaches far beyond the desert southwest, to portray a time and place that is distinctly the Sonoran Desert. His work provides a look at the way indigenous people of the Tucson Basin lived in the recent past and how they incorporate the same cultural traditions today which is in contrast to those of the Pueblo and Navajo. Each work of art is carefully painted with the utmost accuracy, from the stitch marks in the basketry to the pottery designs and clothing of the villagers. Brilliant desert skies and cactus in bloom seem almost lifelike. Michael now creates many one-of-a-kind paintings each year of the culture that remains visible and vibrant to him since his early childhood.

Michael is known for his watercolors, but has created murals (Gila River Indian Community’s Huukum Cultural Center) as well as posters for Indian Art shows including O’odham Tash in Casa Grande, Arizona, and the Heard Museum in Phoenix. He was also commissioned to illustrate a children’s book “Singing Down the Rain” (Moreillon 1997), about Tohono O’odham desert culture. He was an advisor for an exhibit at the Heard Museum, simply called “Rain” and traveled to London’s British Museum of Man with that exhibit. One of his murals hangs in the permanent exhibit “Home” at the Heard in Phoenix. He has also graced the pages of magazines such as Time-Life, Readers Digest and Arizona Highways.  Other displays can be seen at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, Tucson Botanical Gardens and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

A number of awards have been won and Michael participates in several prominent shows. SWAIA’s Indian Market and the Heard Museum Indian Fair & Market are among them. He was selected as the poster artist for the Pueblo Grande Indian Market held in Phoenix each December.

Michael is the recipient of the prestigious 2006 Arizona Living Treasure Award, plus he was one of the two 2005 Honored Artists of the Pueblo Grande Museum Indian Market which he shared with Internationally-known artist, Oreland Joe.