Friday, March 29, 2002


It was early, and I was plodding along, pursuing my morning routine. The cows in the field have now had their calves, and the mothers were particularly attentive to their charges, nursing and cleaning them with special care. The day was chilly and the cows had patches of frost on their backs. As the sun rose, warming the land and the animals, clouds of steam rose from the herd.

When I reached the hay farm, the geese were honking, and making a great deal of noise. I noticed that the white goose had recently had a flock of her own. There were now three new, small, white geese. Since Barry and I are always looking for the metaphor in everything, I decided this was a sign that intolerance breeds intolerance, and love, compassion and understanding breeds more love, compassion and understanding. The flock’s contentment and happiness with each other seemed almost palpable.

As I trudged along, I approached one of the many dirt “onramps” feeding into the main road. A car was approaching the pavement as I came upon the path. As I run along this road in the mornings, I am always gauging my speed and distance to avoid catastrophic interaction with cars, trucks, sheep, horses or cows. I am especially careful not to intersect with trucks of the eighteen wheel variety, although they seem particularly drawn to me, and often like to get as close as possible. Once in a while the local school bus full of children also decides that I am an attractive target and evasive action becomes necessary.

On this particular day I successfully avoided a collision and, as the car drove off, I began thinking about the intersections we have with people who come into the trading post. As I have mentioned, the most enjoyable aspect of this business is meeting and getting to know new people. We have the occasional crash of personalities, but over and over I am amazed and pleased by the number of interesting people who arrive in Bluff. A few weeks ago a couple from New Jersey came into the trading post with their son. We had been keeping in touch with them by e-mail, but had never met face to face. Barry and I found ourselves laughing and joking with them, addressing serious subjects and thoroughly enjoying their time in the post. As they prepared to leave, they said, “We feel like family.” I don’t think Barry and I could have been more proud and flattered.

Barry and I often feel that we are the white geese among the local Navajo people. They seem to accept us in spite of our odd appearance and strange behavior. Some weeks ago I wrote about the unusual word pronunciations we hear at the trading post. After Priscilla read the story, she pointed out that I had failed to look at the other side of the issue. She said I needed to consider how funny Barry and I sound when we speak in Navajo. With one word, “Yah ta hay,” (properly pronounced "yacht eh") she sent Barry and me running for the relative safety of our offices. Needless to say, our faces were red for a while. I don’t remember who said “time is a great leveler,” but I find that embarrassing situations effectively level, and deflate, one’s ego.

As we discuss purchases with artists who bring their work into the trading post, we are often amazed that these individuals tolerate us so well. Often they simply break out laughing at the things we say or do. From time to time the older Navajo people even refer to us as “shi chei” (“grandson”), which is a very nice compliment. Bluff is one of those very rare places where cultures intersect to the betterment of both groups. This small town is in reality a cultural confluence; a place where the Navajo and Anglo universes come together in tolerance, respect and compassion. That is the type of interaction we seek, without concern for bruised flesh or broken bones. The dirt roads leading to the trading post have brought us many happy intersections over the years.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, March 22, 2002

The Thing About Mary

Navajo Basket Weaver Mary Holiday Black

Over the years I have realized that it really is the little things in life that make the difference between something being barely tolerable or really great. Things like the mist rising from the river as the sun peeks over the rosy red cliffs of Bluff; the soft rain that has visited us, calming our fears of a severe drought; the smile on my wife’s face when she finished the first draft of her book on Navajo ceremonial baskets; the return of a good friend; and conversations with Mary Black.

Sunday night I returned from a visit with my daughter, Dacia, in Salt Lake City. Dacia hasn’t lived with me since she was eight months old, so it is always a treat to see her. Since she had been ill over the Christmas holiday and hadn’t been able to come to Bluff, Kira, Grange and I decided we needed to go see her, and give Jana the time she required to finish her writing project. When we returned Sunday night, Jana proudly announced that the three year gestation period for her book had in fact ended successfully. We were all pleased, and relieved.

Then Jamie showed up at the trading post. Just the week before, Art and Linda Moore and I had stood in the trading post wondering aloud when Jamie might return. I have formed a very strong attachment to all three for various reasons, Linda because she always has a big smile and a big hug for me; Art because of his Southern gentleness, because of the way he grabs his collars with both hands when he stands talking with you and because of his name, Arthur Bailey Moore; and Jamie because of his sincerity and directness.

One afternoon about four years ago I was standing in the trading post late one afternoon when I noticed an old pick up stop in the parking lot. In this part of the world, old trucks are a way of life. This time was different, however. Instead of a Navajo climbing out of the cab, a white man about my age, who looked like he had gotten stuck in the 1960s, jumped out. As he swaggered into the store, he noticed me standing behind the counter and asked, “Do you buy things from white guys?!” I quickly replied, “I don’t care if you are red, white or blue, or any other color for that matter. Let’s see what you have.” That was my introduction to James A. “Jamie” Olson.

Over the years Jamie and I have become good friends. He never lets me feel sorry for myself. If I am a little down, Jamie will always, say, “Well, you made the decision. If you don’t like it, change it.” He is my complete opposite, and I guess that’s why I am so fond of him. He is a free sprit, and lives in a 1960s Winnebago trailer which he has refurbished, and which he drags around behind his beat up pick up trucks. When he decides to go somewhere new, he simply hooks up the trailer and moves on. When one of his trucks wears out, he just gets another. I was very pleased to see him again, as was everybody else at the trading post.

After Jamie left for Colorado to visit his very patient sweetheart, the clouds moved in and dropped two days of gentle rain on us. The rain was the kind that local Navajo people refer to as female rain. There was none of the thundering and crashing generally associated with male rain; just soft, ground soaking, nourishing moisture. The rain improved everybody’s mood, and gave us hope of more to come. After the clouds moved east, taking the rain with them, the morning fog floated lightly above the river. Yesterday morning was beautiful as the sun rose from behind the pink cliffs, illuminating the fog bank and making the geese in the field honk. The geese in the field moved north to avoid the mist, and I was able to get a close look at the white goose, which seems to be a run-of-the-mill domesticated goose. Why he (or she) has taken up with this band of Canada geese is a real mystery.

Then, last evening about 4:45 p.m. the telephone started ringing. I picked up and heard Alicia Nelson on the other end of the line, “Steve, Mary and I are coming up from Mexican Hat. Will you wait for us? She has a basket for you.” Since it is a twenty minute drive from Mexican Hat to Bluff, and since we usually close at 5:00 p.m. during winter, I said, “Okay, but you better hurry.” When they arrived, Alicia said, “Don’t tell Mary, but I was driving 70 miles per hour.”

Mary had a very nice cloud people basket, which she said she needed to sell because she wanted to use the money for a peyote ceremony for the Monument Valley people being called up in case of war in Iraq. As you might guess, this required that a little bonus be added to the price of the basket. I didn’t object too much. As Mary and Alicia leisurely thumbed through the photograph and design albums, I began to ask Mary questions about her experiences as a basket weaver. Since Mary doesn’t speak English, all this was done with Alicia interpreting.

I have always been curious about the role Virginia Smith played in the contemporary revival and revolution of Navajo basketry, so I began asking about her. Virginia, who was known as “Chin,” because the Navajo people of Monument Valley could not pronounce her name, operated the Oljato Trading Post for several years. Mary said that Chin traveled a lot and would bring back pictures of baskets from other cultures and other artistic movements. She then showed the pictures to the Monument Valley weavers. The pictures were often of baskets from the Pai, Apache and Tohono O’Odham tribes. Mary also said that two of the first “picture” baskets she wove are currently on display at the Hogback Trading Post in Kirtland, New Mexico. I asked what she was paid for the pieces and was told that each basket brought $1,200.00. In the mid-1970s that was an extraordinary price. Mary said that Chin was the first to encourage the Navajo basket weavers to create new, unusual designs, including the very well known Yei basket motif. Mary also said that she stopped weaving baskets for a long time after Chin was killed in a car accident.

Since I knew that there was a lot of resistance to the new basket designs from the more traditional Navajo people, I asked why Mary continued to experiment with the new designs. She confirmed that there had indeed been great pressure to stop, but that she, “liked to create the art.” To me that confirmed both her courage and her love of the art. It is interesting to consider what would have happened if she had given in to the pressure. I then asked her what she most remembered about her relationship with Chin and Mary responded, “When I was hungry, Chin gave me food as an advance for the rug or basket I was weaving.”

That reminded me of a conversation I had with Lorraine, Mary’s daughter, shortly after they all returned from Washington D.C. in September of 1995. Mary had been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which resulted in the trip to Washington for a reception at the White House. Lorraine had told me that they hadn’t enjoyed the trip much and were very happy to return to Albuquerque where they could eat at Denny’s. Mary confirmed that there had been mounds of food, but that she was not fond of any of it. She said she really didn’t enjoy the visit to “his house,” referring to the White House during the Clinton administration, and that she was happy to get back to the Four Corners, where she could get some real food. Guess it really is the little things that count; like a Denny’s hamburger or the morning mist.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, March 15, 2002

June Blackhorse

It is a sad time for us at Twin Rocks; we have recently lost a good friend and mentor. June Blackhorse, a prominent Navajo medicine man who willingly shared so much valuable information with us concerning his traditional beliefs and cultural stories, has died. Over the past two years, Jana, Steve's wife, acquired a good deal of information from June for her book on Navajo ceremonial basketry. June was not only willing to provide answers to Jana's many questions about the history and origin of ceremonial baskets, he had also mentioned how appreciative he was that she was interested enough to ask. There had even been discussions about recording some of his people's mythological history interpretations. He seemed excited about the opportunity. Unfortunately that will never happen. We have lost a good friend whose message has been silenced. June's words however live within the hearts and minds of his family and friends. His voice has been hushed; his story only partially told. We will greatly miss this link to the past, and hope that he is resting peacefully among his ancestors.

June Blackhorse

It was only a short time ago that my wife, Laurie, my youngest daughter, McKale, and I were traveling to Monument Valley to enjoy watching my son, Spenser, play basketball. My middle child, Alyssa, had opted out of the trip to attend volleyball practice. It was a late winter evening, and the sun was just dropping below the horizon as we began our descent into this sacred land of the Navajo. There were thin bands of wispy, purple clouds partially obscuring the setting sun, which was a fiery ball of orangeish red. I thought of the Navajo Sun God, Johonaaei, settling into the home of his mate Asdzaa Nadleehe, (Changing Woman), at the end of a glorious day's travel across the sky.

The Navajo people believe that the monolithic upthrusts springing from the valley floor are remnants of the great beasts destroyed by their hero, Monster Slayer, in ancient times. Garnets found in certain areas are believed to be the crystalized blood of the giants which was dispersed during the violent struggle. As we approached the massive monoliths which give Monument Valley its name, we were graced with an awe inspiring sight. The dark shadow of night had already fallen on the eastern facing surface of the rock, but the backlight was an incredible blood red color. It was a breath-taking vision, the kind that makes you realize you are but a minute element in nature's harmony and balance. Towering black forms of sandstone backlit by refracted sunlight and framed with linear cloud forms became mythological impressions before our eyes. The vision we witnessed was one that few artists dare to recreate due to their natural inability to properly portray nature's spectacular exhibitions.

That panoramic scene, along with the legends of the Navajo people running through my mind brought goose bumps to my skin, and a tickle that ran up my spine. It is an experience I will cherish as long as I live. I sincerely doubt that images and occurrences such as these would effect me as they do without the influences of people like Hosteen Blackhorse. It is people like June who make such occasions memorable. I greatly appreciate informants such as Mr. Blackhorse for sharing his unique and fascinating world with those of us from the outside. I am also deeply saddened at the loss of a remarkable human being and his wealth of information. I know that from this day forward there will be an empty seat at the cafe where Hosteen Blackhorse spent a great deal of his time. He came often to enjoy a brief meal, a cup of coffee and his family and friends who work and congregate there. "Hagoonee, Hosteen, (Good-bye). Take your place among the stars. You will be missed."

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Friday, March 8, 2002

Nellie's Everything Cream

Natural Pinon Cream at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Twin Rocks Trading Post's Natural Pinon Cream

Those of you who have visited the trading post may have noticed the small bottles of pinion cream on the counter. Some of the bottles contain an opaque mixture with the earthy scent of pinion, some are mottled brown with a very strong smell. What they both are is pinion salve (sometimes mislabeled as pinion "slave"), pure, or mixed with coconut oil. It is a healing mixture, a natural antibiotic of sorts, developed back in the early days by Native people. In the old days the Navajo mixed mutton tallow and lanolin with the strained pinion pitch for spreadability. The pioneers became aware of this natural wonder shortly after their first encounter with the inhabitants of our area. When I first became aware of this "natural medicine" is unclear. I was certainly very young, and must have showed up at Grandma Fern's with a cut or scrape. Grandma Fern slathered her tried and true "sticky pine gum salve" on every wound that she considered likely to become infected.

It seemed that everyone in the area had a bottle of this homeopathic remedy in their medicine cabinets. The reason was plain and simple; it worked.

Nellie Tsosie and her mother in law at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Nellie Tsosie and her mother in law at Twin Rocks

I first met Nellie Tsosie in the summer of 1998. She strolled into Blue Mountain Trading Post with a confident air. Nellie set out a number of baby food bottles filled with what she called, "Everything Cream".
"Everything," I said skeptically, eyeing the smooth spreading, aromatic substance, "What kind of everything?"
Nellie patiently explained that this was a natural salve that healed cuts, scrapes, bruises, and infections. Although I already knew, I was not about to let her know.
"It really works then?" I asked. "You think it can heal this?"
I showed her a carpet burn I had recently received while wrestling in the living room with my older brother Craig. Nellie dipped a finger into one of the bottles, extracting a small amount of her mystery oil, reached up and rubbed it onto my scrape. "Well," she said, "it works on my mule, it should work for you!" I was sold.

When we closed our Blue Mountain store and moved everything to Bluff, I brought Nellie's "Everything Cream" with me. Steve was skeptical to say the least, he mumbled something about "snake oil," and that he wasn't interested in selling unproven medication through Twin Rocks. That happens when people are over-educated. They lose their belief in the natural world. Everything must have scientific evidence to back it up. It didn't take long to prove up. The locals provided us with testimonials by the score. Almost everyone had a tale of a miraculous cure attributed to the wonder salve. My wife's eighty-something uncle tells the story of when he was a boy chopping wood. He missed a stroke and nearly chopped off his big toe. His mother patiently cleaned the wound, slathered on some sticky pine gum salve, and deftly sewed the appendage back in place. It healed fully. I have personally seen the scar, and I believe! A friend of mine swears that he pulled out the venom of a Brown Recluse spider with pinion salve; without loss of tissue. His doctor was amazed. I didn't personally see that one, but it came from a reliable source. My father jokingly tells a story of a woman who bought a jar of Nellie's "Everything Cream," took it home and set it on the kitchen table. The next morning her husband mistakenly spread it on his toast. The woman is now a regular customer; and swears that her husband is a new man since he first ingested it. Nellie just sits back and takes all of this in with a knowing smile on her face and says, "I told you so!"

At one point Nellie came into the store in a very bad mood. She told us that her husband had thrown out the pots and pans she used to make her cream. It seems that he was jealous of her new business, and was also displeased with her new sense of independence. Although we were already well stocked, we purchased everything Nellie had on hand to help her get restarted. Regaining her footing by purchasing new cooking utensils, she informed her husband that if he tried something like that again she would throw his saddle out in the yard. This is the ultimate threat for a Navajo woman to make to her mate; since it signifies divorce. Her husband took her at her word and has not caused Nellie a bit of trouble since. Navajo woman have traditionally followed in the footsteps of their husbands, preferring to follow rather than lead. I guess this is no longer the case, at least with Nellie.

Nellie continues to produce her "Everything Cream". She claims that it has grown into a national phenomenon. Nellie and her mother-in-law have traveled all over the Four Corners region selling Nellie's products. She has even had limited success in California, and as far east as Virginia. This woman is not afraid to get out and market her cream. We are privileged to see Nellie and "Mom" on a monthly basis. We enjoy their visits a great deal and look forward to hearing their latest business schemes. Which brings up Nellie's multilevel marketing proposal. I told Nellie that I was interested because I had faith in her, and her miracle product. It also fits in with the promise I made to my wife, that I would not fall for another multi-level marketing scheme unless I was at or near the top of the pyramid. So anyone interested in getting in on the ground floor of a "sure thing", let me know right away. This is going to be big, and nobody should miss this opportunity. Steve has suggested that we call it, "Uncle Barry's cure-all" and that we get a team and wagon to go out on the road.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post