Sunday, June 30, 2002

Etta, Duke, and the Monster Pitchpot

There are people in the world with such pleasant personalities that it is, quite simply, hard to say no to their requests. Etta Rock is one of these people. When this kind and friendly woman drives into our parking lot, Steve and I know we are in trouble. Not that we don't like the woman, we are in fact very fond of her. It is just extremely hard to turn her away. Etta makes traditional Navajo pitch pots - the old time water vessels. These containers are basically a loosely woven basket covered in pinion pitch that, at one time, provided a means of carrying and storing water.

Navajo Pitch Pot Artist Etta Rock
Navajo Pitch Pot Artist Etta Rock

These utilitarian vessels are time consuming to create; just gathering the sap prevents many a would-be artist from pursuing this craft. The pine pitch is gathered from the trees by picking the droplets one by one. After the pitch is gathered, it is necessary to heat and screen the debris from the batch. This is done in a double boiler, and must be done at least three separate times. It is a hot, sticky job, with the ever present risk of being burned by the boiling liquid. There is much skill involved in producing a pitch pot. Weaving a symmetrical foundation, applying the pitch and producing a smooth even finish sounds easy enough. It is not, we know of only two other people who make pitch pots, and their production is small.

If by chance Steve or I is cornered by Etta we do our best to withstand her charms and explain to her that we have an abundance of her work. This, of course, does not deter this charmer of souls. Offering her calloused hand and smiling sincerely from somewhere deep within, Etta begins to break down your will. You do your best to hold firm, but it is a losing battle. At some point in the process you find yourself asking Etta not to sell you the piece. Imagine that - a turnabout has occurred. Speaking hardly a word of English, except "please," and communicating her bewitching magic through facial expression and body language, Etta reels you in. It is a sad time for someone who has convinced himself that he can, gently, and with kindness, turn away the most persistent salesperson. This just does not work with Etta, she is definitely an enigma.

I first met Etta sometime in the late 1970s. I was running the forerunner of Twin Rocks Trading Post, which was called Bluff City Trading Post. It was a small hole-in-the-wall that catered to the Navajo people more than the tourists. It was at this upstart business that I met many of the local "colorful characters". Etta is one individual that I place in this category. Needless to say I lost my heart to this quiet, easy going grandmother. She referred to me as “Duke's boy". Before I knew
it, half of my inventory was made up of Etta's pitch pots. Duke's boy was about to be disowned by Duke. At one point Etta brought me the largest pitch pot I have ever seen. It was three feet tall and easily as wide. It was the middle of a very hot Bluff summer; sweltering to say the least. Etta and her husband Jackson backed up to the front of the old store with a large something wrapped in wet blankets, tied securely in the back of their truck. I began to fidget and wring my hands because my father had threatened me with disastrous consequences if I ever bought another of Etta’s “!@#$%&* water jars. There was no way out; I was cornered. I was going to have to stand up to Etta or pay the price.

Etta Rock in fron of Twin Rocks Trading PostEtta Rock in front of Twin Rocks Trading Post
Etta Rock in front of Twin Rocks Trading Post

Just then my dear old dad wheeled into the yard. Salvation! I was not too proud to sacrifice my father to Etta’s persuasions, to save myself. Both Etta and my father walked into the store at the same time. I raised my hands, palms facing Etta and said, “No more Etta please.” I was thinking that my father was going to go ballistic if I bought more of her pitch pots. Etta turned to Duke and smiled. . . She turned on the charm, and before you could say, “There she goes again,” my tough guy dad had been reeled in. It was over quickly. Etta pulled away with a wad of cash, and we became the owners of the largest known pitch pot in the history of the art. I simply looked at my father with mock surprise and said, “What just happened?” Duke just snorted, realizing he had just met a master saleswoman. He walked back outside, climbed into his truck and drove away. From that time forward, whenever I wanted to needle my dear old Dad for one reason or another, I would bring up the monster pitch pot affair. It works beautifully.

Duke Simpson with Monster Pitch Pot by Etta Rock
Duke Simpson with Etta Rock's Pitch Pot

I have often seen Etta’s pitch pots in local service stations, convenience stores and lumberyards. The woman certainly gets around. I recently received a phone call from an irate farmer’s wife. She asked if I knew a Navajo woman named Etta Rock. She had traded the woman’s husband a number of what she called pitch pots, for hay, and the woman wanted to know their value. It seems her husband could not say no to the woman and was going to let his wife deal with her the next time Etta showed up. I assured the woman that Etta’s pitch pots were indeed valuable, and that I thought it would be a good idea for her to meet Etta.

The next time I met the farmer, I asked him about his trading pitch pots for hay, and whether his wife had met Etta. He shook his head and said that his wife had indeed met her and that they now owned an additional water jar. He also said that he was glad that he had a long, open driveway to his farm house. It gave him, and his wife, a slight advantage. They could slip out the back door and disappear into the barn when the Rocks came to visit.

As I look around the store to have Natalie photograph pitch pots for this story, I realize that we are low on Etta’s work; we have only eight pitch pots in the Trading Post. I am a bit hesitant to send a message that we need a visit from Etta; this is unprecedented. If we open that door we may have to invite Etta into a trading post partnership, or take out a loan to support the increased inventory. Where is that woman when we need her? Oh well, I am sure she will show up soon. If she doesn't, I know where to find some surplus pots.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, June 24, 2002

Hosteen Billy's Rugs

Our good friend Jacque recently came to town for a visit. During her brief stay in Bluff, we had a good laugh about our Etta Rock story, and about Etta's effect on us. During our conversations, Jacque related several experiences she has had during her life as a "trader." Jacque's family has been in the trading post business for many years, and she and her husband, John, now own a supply house where they sell silver, turquoise and associated findings to local silversmiths. Jacque is fun loving and has a powerful, uninhibited laugh. Because of her long association with the trading business, she has many stories about the Navajo people and her family's interaction with them. We have often invited her to share those stories via guest essays. She simply laughs and says, "That's your gig, not mine."

During this visit, Jacque told us of a weaver she used to deal with; a very old weaver - Mae Gould. It seems that this elderly Navajo woman was not only nearly blind, she was also nearly deaf. Because of her advanced age, she wove rugs that were not extremely marketable. The problem was that Jacque had been dealing with this grandmother for such a long time, and had bonded with her so closely, that Jacque was unable to turn down the woman's weavings. The rugs were such that Jacque began considering the transactions donations rather than purchases.

Typically Mae would show up at the counter of Jacque's store and call out in a loud voice for Jacque to, "Come here." The loud voice was the result of her hearing loss, and everyone within a quarter mile could hear her. This once talented weaver would place her latest creation on the counter and state her price. Jacque would pay the asking price and chalk it up to good relations. After a brief but loud conversation, Mae would totter off until the next encounter.

As we were laughing about Jacque's experiences, I began to recall a similar situation that took place in the late 1970s at our Blue Mountain Trading Post location, involving an elderly Navajo man named Hosteen Billy. Hosteen is a term of respect, which is often used when referring to a Navajo gentleman. It is similar in usage to "sir" in the English language. At that time Hosteen Billy was believed to be in his late eighties, and had a full head of shaggy gray hair, a stooped back and a bright disposition. My parents had known Hosteen Billy for many years, and considered him a good friend. Mr. Billy's wife had been a rug weaver in her time, and Duke and Rose had purchased many weavings from the couple. When Mr. Billy's wife passed away, Mr. Billy inherited her small loom. After his wife died, Hosteen Billy realized that he still needed that little bit of extra income her rugs brought in, just to get by. Having watched the weaving process for over sixty years, and having warped the loom for his wife for all those years, Mr. Billy figured, "How hard can it be," and became a rug weaver.

When I came into the trading post one morning and discovered the first of Mr. Billy's weavings, I thought my parents had flipped out. I believe my comment was, "Who bought this, and why?" The rug was approximately one foot wide by two feet long. I say approximately because it was the most uneven weaving I had ever seen; and the colors were, well, indescribable. There were uneven bands of purple, red, green and pink. It was, without a doubt, the worst rug I had ever seen.

Consider that my parents taught me the business of buying and selling Indian art, and being frugal and not wasting hard earned money were key tenets of that education. I stood there looking at them and said, "You paid fifty dollars for this?" After barely avoiding a well aimed, and well deserved, slap from my mother, I began to receive another, more important, part of my education.

When Hosteen Billy showed up at the back door of the trading post, well after business hours, offering his first attempt at weaving, my folks bought it without question. They could have no more turned him down than turn away their own child. Hosteen Billy had walked seven miles from his home on the other side of West Water canyon to sell the rug. He not only sold it for the asking price, he got a ride home as part of the bargain. From that day forward, on a monthly basis, Hosteen Billy showed up at the trading post with a fifty dollar rug. He would stay and talk for a while and accept a ride home as needed. People were often amazed, when sorting through the stacks of Navajo weavings we kept at the trading post, to stumble upon one of Mr. Billy's rugs. After hearing Mr. Billy's story, many were pleased to own one of the weavings. We sold them for fifty dollars. As my parents often said, "We lose a little on each sale, but make it up in volume."

At one point the noted textile scholar, Joe Ben Wheat, author of The Gift of Spider Woman, came into the store. As he thumbed through our inventory of weavings he came across one of Mr. Billy's rugs and set it aside. We had a spirited conversation on Navajo textiles, creativity and fineness of weave, but nothing was said of Mr. Billy's extremely unique weavings; he simply set them aside. After a couple hours, he picked out two of our nicest rugs, threw our entire inventory of Mr. Billy's rugs on top of the stack and said, "I'll take these." I was flabbergasted. Here was the world renowned expert on Navajo textiles, and he wanted five of Hosteen Billy's rugs. My jaw hit the floor, the other two rugs I could believe, they were fantastic, but Mr. Billy's rugs! I stammered and stumbled over "Why" and "Don't you want to know about those?" Joe Ben simply smiled and said, "I like them, and I think I know the story."

My parents sat quietly by and watched the whole thing unfold. When Mr. Wheat left the trading post their smiles grew broader. I looked at them and said, "Like you knew." Dodging a well aimed kick, and receiving another lecture on my lack of respect, I walked away mumbling to myself, trying to grasp the meaning of what had just happened. We bought and sold every rug Hosteen Billy wove until he went to join his wife. I wish now that I had had the foresight to keep Hosteen Billy's first weaving I would treasure it and use it to remind me of the lessons I have learned. To this day if you happen to be thumbing through the stacks of rugs at Twin Rocks you may stumble onto a weaving that just doesn't measure up. As for me, I hope we will always have a few of those rugs in our inventory. Who knows, my children may also need an important lesson on life.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, June 17, 2002

Textural Impressions

The artistic vision of the Native American artists we deal with at the trading post seems to continually capture my imagination. Unlike them, I am unable to recreate my visual adventures in canvas, textile or sumac splits. Through their tutelage, it seems that I am constantly drawn to nature's expressions of texture and form.

From the lowest elevations of this vast land to the high vaulted ceiling of the sky at the edge of space, and many grand formations inbetween, are textural surfaces and views that capture the imagination of my inner, less than artistic, soul. It is with this in mind that I have decided to shed my tunnel vision and open my conscience to the subtleties of the natural world. I recall scenes such as the yellow/orange glow of the setting sun resting briefly on a mesa top, smudged by thin wispy clouds, just before tumbling backwards into some unseen canyon depth at the edge of the world. I intend to spend more time contemplating events such as these and commit them to memory

The inspiration behind this revelation was a recent visit by my wife's twin sister and her family. During their stay it was decided that our group would travel to Bluff to enjoy the spring flowers and to picnic at the swinging bridge. It was a gorgeous day, not too desert hot yet, and the unpredictable sandy winds had decided to cease for a time. Steve had agreed to cover the store while I took some time with my in-laws to share with them impressions of my home town.

Laurie separated from the gathering at the bottom of Cow Canyon to pick me up at the trading post. At that point a slight miscommunication occurred regarding where the group was to meet. I am sure that I had nothing to do with the misunderstanding, and for once kept my mouth shut. I thereby avoided being tarnished by the mishap or being caught up in the web of frustration of further communication.

We scooted out to the bridge to avoid being late for supper. After scouring the area for any sign of our misplaced relatives, and finding no trace, it was decided that they must have misunderstood the directions. We guessed that they had traveled to Sand Island which is at the other end of the valley. So it was back on the road again, with me remaining silent. Sure enough we found them at the new location waiting patiently. After a brief discussion concerning who made a wrong turn and why, we settled into our meal and slowly forgot the mix-up. The close proximity of the red rock cliffs with their underlying structural patterns, and the murmur of the river buffered by the tangled green foliage of the tamarisk, soothed our minds and mellowed our emotions.

After lunch I noticed my young niece Kelsi drag out a camera and begin fidgeting with it. Being naturally curious, I wandered over and struck up a conversation. It seems that Kelsi had been given an assignment in her photography class to seek out and capture images of texture. I am sure that she asked for my assistance since I never intrude into other people's business without an invitation.

As we wandered about, we found a great many impressions of complex patterns provided by Mother Nature. There were highly exaggerated forms in the bark of twisted cottonwood trees. Closer to the river San Juan were white granules of alkali interspersed with tiny rounded stones which had been polished smooth by the action of river water. Bundles of twisted plant life had been spun together before being unceremoniously deposited on the sand as the river dropped in flow. Textural miracles were everywhere we looked. After a while it became clear that it would not be a problem finding extraordinary examples of natural texture; it would simply be a matter of picking those impressions that were most appealing to Kelsi. At that point I shared with her those profound words of advice once generously given me by my good friend Bruce, "The difference between a good and a great photographer is that a great photographer gets rid of their bad photographs."

I greatly enjoyed the time I spent with Kelsi, because it reaffirmed my belief that there is much to see and appreciate without the need to travel great distances. One need only focus on one's surroundings and relationships to find wonder and amazement. The secret is to take the time and make the effort to enjoy them when those opportunities present themselves.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, June 10, 2002


For years I have struggled with how to thank my father for the support and direction he provided during my youth. Like most sons of my generation, and all generations that have gone before, I am paternally challenged. I have tried in many ways to tell my dad that I appreciate everything he has done for me, but it never seems to come out right, or at all. If I start to jot down my thoughts, my pen and mind seem to jam at the same time, creating a practical and emotional log jam. If I try to tell him, I just can’t seem to get the words out. After many failed attempts, I have decided to give it one more try; before one of us leaves this world permanently. This, then, is mea culpa; my thoughts and confessions about my pop.

I have realized over the past several years that the more I try to differentiate myself from my father, the more I become him. The more I experience in my life, the more I understand what he experienced trying to raise five children in such a difficult environment. After one recent occurrence, I found myself responding in precisely the same way he would have done 25 years earlier when he was my age. My friend Dave always jokes that he frequently looks in the mirror and gasps, “Dad!” I am beginning to feel the same. In many ways I have indeed become my father.

As a child growing up in Bluff, the two things I remember most are unrestrained freedom and my father working a great deal. My dad, “Duke” Simpson, always seemed to be up early to leave for work, and generally returned late. I imagine he must have felt a little like the mother birds that nest in the eaves of the trading post porch. These birds never seem to be able to keep up with the needs of their hatchlings, which perpetually scream for more. While Duke was running to meet our demands, our mother, Rose, attempted to keep us out of harm’s way. It was undoubtedly a challenge to keep five young children, who were only about one year apart, out of trouble. Rose and Duke seemed to manage well enough, but I am sure it was a genuine struggle.

By the time we moved to Blanding and began establishing ourselves in the trading business, I was a little older and slightly more responsible, although probably not much. Duke had a saying that went something like, “Rose, those kids could break an anvil,” which was generally true.

Probably as a means of keeping us from destroying what he was trying to build, Duke always managed to keep us busy. If he had been a religious man he may have said something like, “Busy hands are happy hands,” or “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Instead, he would simply say, “Don’t you have anything to do?” If the answer was “No,” he had little trouble finding something to keep us engaged. Initially he put us to work as attendants at a small filling station he rented on the south side of Blanding. Later, a second hand store was added.

When we were at school, Rose and Duke took over. It was not an easy time for any of us. Although I resented the restriction the job placed on my free time, I was happy to have a little folding money in my wallet. I felt like a king when there were a few bucks in my pocket. Duke paid pretty well; a dollar an hour. It was not until much later that I realized what those years of running the service station taught me, and what an advantage the experience provided.

The filling station and second hand store were probably the start of our venture into the trading post business, although there are many other influences that may have been the true catalyst. The local Navajo people frequently wanted to exchange turquoise and silver for gas and used furniture, and it was this that ultimately resulted in the construction of Blue Mountain Trading Post.

I don’t remember how old I was when Duke began taking us on buying trips; possibly nine or ten. What I do recall was that he was always ready to pack us up and head out on a new business adventure. Sometimes it was a trip to a Colorado auction and sometimes it was a trip to the Phoenix flea market. No matter where we went, we always had an interesting time. Duke was happy just to be on the road, and we were glad to see new places.

During one of those trips Duke purchased the entire inventory of a defunct shoe store. When he returned home, we had a yard sale that resulted in the shoeing of the entire town. On another occasion he brought home a trailer full of western hats, shirts and jeans. The Blanding clothing market was nearly devastated.

These trips also allowed Duke to introduce us to the pleasures of the world. On one excursion to Colorado, Duke and I were driving through Moab when he asked me if I wanted a beer. Since I was young and interested in such forbidden delights, I readily replied, “Yes!” A short time later I was sitting straight up in the cab of the pickup truck with any icy brew in my hand. I could barely contain myself as I popped open the bottle. After one gulp, my excitement waned. The taste was so bitter on my inexperienced tongue that my thirst for beer was permanently quenched. I think Duke knew what would happen, since a similar situation occurred when I acquired an interest in tobacco.

As I graduated high school and college, I determined to leave Utah and never return. I had had enough of this state and my father’s business, so I left for the bright lights of California. I was convinced that Duke was not quite as smart as he thought, and not nearly as bright as I. Surely he sees the irony in my coming back to the land, the people and the business he loves. I only hope he sees how much I appreciate the man he is, and the man he has helped me become.

The Navajo people revere their elders, and listen closely to their advice. I am sure I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had done the same.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, June 3, 2002

"Hoozhooh" or Off the Beam

Hoozhooh" (pronounced "hoe-zho") is defined in The Navajo Language Dictionary as the process of becoming peaceful, harmonious or happy. I might add, from personal experience and understanding, that physical and psychological health play an important role in this since they too are susceptible to disturbance. Discussions of Hoozhooh, or harmony and balance, are quite common at the trading post. It is a theme the Navajo people frequently incorporate into their art as a means of staying focused on attaining this state of balance. Hoozhooh reminds us that such things as unconscious offenses of self righteousness, discrimination and overwhelming pride are just as destructive as conscious acts of evil. All are simply a part of life; they must be recognized for their negativity and avoided. We must stay focused on what is good and right to remain on the beam. This balance is similar to what gymnasts expend so much time and energy on to perfect their balance beam exercises. It is very much the same in Navajo culture.

Long Walk Basket by Navajo weaver Peggy Black

I have a good friend who is extremely creative and passionate about his art. I find that I enjoy his company a great deal when he is expressing his creativity. He paints a uniquely positive picture when he speaks of his art. The downside is that he has a poor attitude when it comes to most day to day situations. I find myself hesitating to initiate a conversation with him for fear that he will lose focus and revert to negativity. Dealing with him is like hiking the landscape of a deeply cut Southwestern river drainage. You greatly enjoy the grandeur and spectacular views from the high ridges, but beware of the dangers in the gorge. You must be cautious not to get caught in the flash floods common to those lower regions. If being caught in one of these overwhelming deluges doesn't kill you, it will leave you terribly shaken and with a gritty disposition as you attempt to extract those pesky grains of sand from every pore, crease and crevice. I suppose that I must accept my friend for what he is, and realize that his hoozhooh has a greater diversity than most.

My personal attempt at hoozhooh is akin to the now obsolete computer game of Pong; an electronic version of ping pong. I feel as if I am continually being bounced from opposing walls of positive and negative influences. I am rarely able to hold the center, and am always leaving deep scratches and fingernail shards in the middle ground as I blow by on each successive pass. These near misses surely create distinctive markings on the face of my playground. The markings bear witness to my unsuccessful attempts at harmonizing my soul. Maybe that is why I relate so well to artistic interpretation of this elusive goal of hoozhooh.

I suppose that if hoozhooh was an easy quest, those who obtained it might take it for granted. If you eventually find and maintain the middle ground, you may simply straight line, fade to black, game over!. Or maybe a new, more exciting game might appear, with greater challenges and more promising results.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post