Friday, June 22, 2018

Language and Music Tutorial

Almost from the first hour we opened the Kokopelli doors at Twin Rocks Trading Post, Priscilla has been with us, helping buy, sell, and trade art of the Southwest, turquoise jewelry, Navajo rugs and baskets, folk art and other collectibles. As we developed commerce with the local craftsmen and women, she was right by our side, counseling, advising, and, at times, laughing out loud at our mistakes. 

Whether you are talking about personal or business relationships, most visitors to the trading post have no idea how difficult it is to navigate the intricacies of Native cultures. Looking in from the outside, their glass is opaque, often impenetrable, and at best hazy, vague, and unclear. Their heritage is ancient and deep, with lots of blind alleys in which to trap the uninitiated. To call it a maze would be a gross understatement. As I explained to one keenly interested visitor the other day, “It’s a minefield, and sooner or later you’re gonna lose a limb; sometimes two or three. Best case scenario, you only lose a few digits.” While Priscilla has so far been able to help us avoid an all-out implosion, mishaps are common. I often question when the next disaster will arrive, and what the emotional or financial cost will be. Fear of a cultural catastrophe is my constant companion.

By some stroke of luck, after almost 30 years of comings and goings, Priscilla remains. While she sometimes threatens to retire and go home to her nine grand-babies, horses, dogs, goats, and 16 new lambs, she is still at it, organizing, pricing, displaying, guiding, explaining, and doing almost any other project or thing necessary to keep the Twin Rocks wheels turning. While the grandkids howl about spending more time with her, the dogs bark for more scratching behind the ears, the sheep bleat for additional feed, and the goats do whatever it is goats do, we have hung on to her. We would be lost without her. Indeed, at times we are lost with her, but that’s another story.

Despite the commonly held perception that Priscilla is Wonder Woman, Superwoman, or Bat Woman, or all three rolled into one, it is not always peaches and cream around Twin Rocks Trading Post. There are a few wrinkles. The most persistent rub, for me at least, concerns language—Navajo language to be precise. One of my early requests was that when there were no customers in the store Priscilla speak to me in Navajo, and only Navajo. This, I thought, given adequate time, would force me to learn, thereby allowing me to communicate directly, candidly and effectively with artists, suppliers, and elderly Navajo people with interesting tales to tell. I am envious of traders like Bruce Burnham, Hank Blair, and Bill Malone, who are capable of both humorous and serious conversation, and can even engage in honest and thoughtful negotiations in Priscilla’s native tongue. Surely, I reasoned, this would give me an advantage over other linguistically challenged trading post operators. And, just as surely, I reckoned, would permit me to gather great stories to pass on to our customers, visitors, anthropologists, and authors.

My inaptitude for language and Priscilla's impatience with my slooooow progress, however, combined to spoil my plan. While she was able to teach me numbers, greetings, pleasantries, and a few perfectly serviceable swear words, I never became fluent. Much to Priscilla and Barry’s chagrin, when properly provoked, I can, however, curse effectively and at length.

When Kira and Grange were singing Navajo songs and performing Navajo dances during their primary years at Bluff Elementary School, I had to sit mutely by, wondering what it all meant. The best I had to offer was a “Yeego,” which loosely translates into “Cool,” “Nice job,” or “Get on with it,” depending on the circumstances. The Native kids often looked at me with pity, while asking if Kira and Grange were in fact Navajo. This, despite Kira and Grange having red hair, highly freckled skin, and two conspicuously pale parents.

Recently, I was reminded of the time our friend John Huling “offered" to teach me the Native American flute. At the time, John had been writing and playing music over 40 years and was heralded as one of the originators of the Native American–influenced sound. Television networks such as ABC, BBC, CBS, NBC, PBS, OIC, The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, the Olympics, and the Travel Channel had all used his music in their productions. And, he had sold more than 1.5 million albums, the rough equivalent of three gold records. So, he had every reason to be confident, or overly confident, as it turned out. “No thanks,” I protested, “I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Not a carpal, metacarpal, or even a phalange. Nothing, zero!” “Nuts,” he responded, “I can teach anyone, and I mean anyone!" After recording so many award-winning albums, he was confident even I could be taught. As one might guess, John is without question a Type A personality. He had not, however, ever met anyone like me.

Trying to dissuade him from his obvious folly, I told him of the time I purchased a saxophone from our friend Perry’s Provo, Utah, pawn shop and began teaching myself to play. I wanted in the worst way to claim some, even the most basic, musical talent. Growing up in Bluff had left me less worldly and more insecure than I liked, so my emotional resume needed to be expanded. Nothing but piercing squawks and squeaks ever emerged from that sax. As a result, I took it back to Perry and demanded a refund. “Nothing wrong with this instrument,” he assured me, concluding the problem was with the player, not the equipment. “Operator error,” Perry concluded.

No matter how hard I argued against it, John was undeterred, and I finally began to think he might be right. So, during his next visit to Bluff, he sat me down and applied his best, most-proven techniques. “We’ll have you playing in less than half an hour,” he boasted as we commenced the session. Two hours later, he got up from the couch on which we were seated and declared, “Well Steve, I guess you were right. Not even a metatarsal! I give up.” And that, as they say, was the end of our musical adventure. 

Since my language skills are underdeveloped, when Priscilla is out of town, I have to make deals with Navajo artists using sign language, grunts, gestures, and lip pointing. Rick, Susie, and even Barry are not much help. Barry can’t swear as well as I, but he is substantially better with numbers. Rick and Susie, well, they just look forlorn. There are times when it is effective to simply count out the offer in cash and put it on the counter. That most often gets the deal done, but it is a crude solution that can leave sellers confused and unsatisfied with the experience. And, at Twin Rocks, we are all about the experience, whether or not we can properly express it in any language.