Monday, September 23, 2002

Family Matters

As a result of our many years in the trading post business, we have developed a few hard and fast rules to live by. First, when purchasing items from a Native American artist, never show an emotional attachment to the work before you own it. Because there is never a price tag dangling from the piece when it walks through the door, value often fluctuates in direct proportion to the purchaser's level of interest. Exclamations of excitement are best left out of the equation until your ownership has been firmly established. The Navajo people are in tune with the subtleties of life and they notice body language and emotional nuances that others easily miss. Steve and I strive for a relaxed demeanor and poker faces when dealing with Navajo sellers; otherwise values can appreciate quickly.

(Lorraine Black - daughter of one of the most...)

Secondly, do not become emotionally attached to the artists. Run from attempts to bring you into their families, or propositions aimed at making you a "blood brother". I know a number of Anglo people who have been adopted into the world of the Navajo, and are quite pleased with their associations. These adoptees, however, do not come into contact with the multitude of characters we see on a daily basis. We experience firsthand what a commitment these relationships are, and see on an ongoing basis the amount of time, effort and emotional stamina it takes to be a "brother".

A few years ago Lorraine Black brought in a beautifully woven basket, which she carefully unwrapped and handed to me for inspection. As the transfer was made from her hand to mine, a good size sliver of Sumac stuck my finger. I set the weaving on the counter and focused on removing the painful intrusion as quickly as possible. Although Steve tried to catch my attention, I was intent on relieving my misery and neglected his protests. As I drew the sticker from my appendage, a drop of blood emerged from the wound and fell onto the basket. Steve's "uh oh," and the meaning behind it, flooded my consciousness. I looked up into Lorraine's smiling face, and knew what was coming. Before I could interject, Lorraine had me cornered with her statement, "I must have poked myself and spilled my own blood on that basket a dozen times. Because yours has joined mine, we are now brother and sister."

I did my darndest to talk myself out of the situation by pointing out my many faults. Much to my chagrin, Steve readily agreed with each and every statement and pointed out a few I had missed. He later stated that he was just trying to help me out of the predicament, but the smile behind his eyes made me wonder. Lorraine was having none of it; she knew she had me just where she wanted me, and was not letting me out of the noose. I fussed and fumed, cleaned the basket thoroughly and claimed ignorance to her customs and the responsibilities they demanded. Lorraine just shook her head, frowned at me and said, "We are family, get used to it!"

Both Steve and I have known Lorraine for at least 25 years, and we like her a great deal. We just don't want to be directly related to her! Lorraine's own family calls her Ma'ai (Coyote), which translates into chaos! The woman is a wonderful, outrageous, high maintenance, out of control individual. I have enough women in my life with those very same traits; why would I want another? My stress increased as I noticed Steve nonchalantly moving out of harm's way, in an effort to disassociate himself from the occurrence. So much for brotherly intervention.

I began negotiations, on the basket and the relationship. Steve had disappeared completely, so I felt no remorse in sacrificing him. I worked out a deal that provided her with a higher price than she would have normally received for her weaving. The other side of the compromise provided Lorraine with two blood brothers for the price of one. Same parents, same blood! Steve and I would share responsibility for our new sister on the basis of "catch us if you can". When Steve finally returned and discovered the terms of the contract he complained bitterly, but knew that Lorraine would hold him to our agreement. As far as I was concerned it served him right for leaving the scene of an accident.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, September 16, 2002


Recently I was running west toward St. Christopher’s Mission, marveling at the pumpkin orange sunrise caused by smoke from the California wildfires, when I realized that I was hearing voices, again. When they come, these voices flood in from all sides, and are often strange and incomprehensible.

Buddy, the Burro - the picture says it all!

This particular morning, as I slumped down the stairs from the house above the trading post to begin my stretching routine, I heard the braying of the Burand burro. I first noticed this strange and wonderful beast a few years ago as Robin Burand and Sam Cantrell led him through town on a tether. At that time, he was just a baby and nipped at my fingers, rather than voicing his opinions. Since then, I have run past his corral countless times and listened to his hee hawing as it floats across the valley; always wondering, and never knowing, just what he is trying to say.

As I began my jog out to the mission, I was confronted by my Cow Canyon canine companion; Grover, the massive blond Labrador Retriever. Whenever he sees me out on my morning runs, he barks loudly and ambles out to the highway. His owners were initially concerned when this pattern began, but have since become aware that the barking is congenial, not confrontational. I fully understand Grover, and he understands me. He is just telling me that I should scratch him behind the ears, pat his sides and tickle his tummy. Once those tasks are accomplished, he waddles back to his home, satisfied that his needs have been accommodated.

Having pacified Grover, I continued westerly and heard the honk, honk, honking of the Canada geese which inhabit the Jones hay farm every winter. The geese had recently returned from the north, and were circling the fields looking for a suitable place to land. Two years ago, one of their members was a white goose, who spoke to me of patience and understanding. When several white geese babies arrived on the scene, we at the trading post became convinced that the gaggle of geese knew more about getting along with group members who are different, than we did. We also decided there was a lot to learn about tolerance and compassion from this flock.

(Etta Rock - Etta creates water-tight baskets traditionally used by the Navajo people. Not many artists...)

I passed the farm and noticed a small group of mule deer in the next field. Their soft eyes and straight ahead stare spoke to me of caution. Caution for this unexplained being who frequently plods along the highway in the predawn. Their silence spoke volumes about an existence on the fringes of human habitation.

The voices in my head are not only animal, however; humans also invade my consciousness. Many of my friends, family members and associates patiently try to explain what is required of me. I frequently find their voices as confusing and incomprehensible as the braying of the burro. They are convinced that this confusion has something to do with the thickness of my skull and the density of my eardrums. As you may guess, this tonal deficiency gets me into trouble on a regular basis.

(Mary Holiday Black - Mary single-handedly brought about a Navajo weaving revolution...)

Then there are the Navajo people who frequent the trading post. Shortly after we opened the store, Priscilla Sagg came to us. Priscilla has been my salvation, and I frankly don’t know what I would do without her. Pricilla has helped me survive 13 years of running this disorganization, and it frightens me when she mentions retirement.

Early on, I realized that I needed to speak Navajo to understand the native voices directed at me every day. I therefore put the bite on Priscilla to help me, and she reluctantly agreed; probably realizing it would be a monumental task to teach me anything. We never really got past numbers, greetings, partings, exclamations and a few swear words before she realized her tutelage was not paying significant dividends. So, I have been consigned to asking Priscilla and Natalie to interpret when Etta Rock tells me she needs to sell her pitch pot because her truck is broken, when Mary Black explains the design in her latest basket, or when Julia Deswood tells me how difficult it is to prepare and spin the wool used in her hand-spun rugs.

Oops, there’s that other voice telling me to stop writing silly stories and do some real work. Barry can be such a tyrant.

Julia Deswood - Julia spins her own wool from her own...

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Monday, September 9, 2002

Zero MPH

Recently I read a book written by Marjorie S. May, entitled The Highly Adaptable Gospel; A Journey Through the Life of H. Baxter Liebler. The book relates the path that took Father Liebler, the founder of St. Christopher’s Mission in Bluff, from his comfortable home in Connecticut to the wilds of the Navajo Nation’s Utah Strip. On several occasions Barry and I have mentioned Father Liebler and the mission in our writings. That is generally because the man and his mission had a significant impact on our young lives.

The reality undoubtedly is that we were too young to accurately gauge his influence. Looking back, however, I can clearly see how the dynamic atmosphere at the mission in the 1960’s impacted me then and affects me even now. We attended kindergarten, were attended to at the clinic, went to church and played in the red dirt of the mission ground all the time feeling safe and secure.

Although the book paints a positive picture of Father Liebler and his love for the Navajo people, the author cannot avoid noting that the priest has been criticized for his “Anglo condescension toward the Indian.” The author also notes that in his language and correspondence, Father Liebler made use of the ”broken English” pronunciation used by many Navajos”.

As I read those comments, a chill ran down my spine. Barry and I can rightly be accused of making the same mistakes; and probably many more. Although we write about the enjoyment we find working with the local Navajo artists, I am sure that many years from now we may also be found to have been insensitive to the issues of the day.

Ms. May concludes, “In spite of these shortcomings, which [are] rightfully pointed out as the white man’s insensitivity and sense of superiority of language and culture, we still return to the central fact of this man’s goodness. Fr. Liebler brought more love, comfort, patience, hands-on care, and education to the Navajo people than many missionaries did before or during that time in history. He made himself a living example of tolerance and acceptance, of hard work and perseverance. . . .”

These comments about Father Liebler, and how they relate to the relationship Barry and I have with the local Navajo people, have been weighing on my mind lately. Recently I was jogging east on Highway 163 near St. Christopher’s mission; my regular route. As I approached the mission, I was thinking about the book. It had occurred to me that Father Liebler's love for the Navajo people was like the San Juan River; it flowed with great regularity, and gave a certain stability to the land and its people.

I was questioning whether I have any of that goodness in me, when I heard a car approaching from the west. I am very aware of vehicles on the road as I run, so I could tell the car was about a quarter mile behind me and was starting to decelerate. I was approaching the entrance to the mission, so I assumed the driver intended to turn left into the church, which put us on a potential collision course.

I slowed my pace to allow the driver to make the turn without any unnecessary and unfortunate contact. Instead of turning, the driver pulled alongside me and rolled down his window. Assuming he had a question to ask, I looked over and waited for the query. I could see that this sporty red car contained a nice looking Navajo family of mom, dad and three small children. The child closest to me was a young girl of about three years, who was peeking out the side window with a big smile on her face. No question was posed, so I slowed my pace a little more, scrunched my forehead, wrinkled my nose and said in my best gangsta’ slang, “Whassup?”
Daddy driver cocked his head a little to the right, also scrunched his forehead, wrinkled his nose, tilted his hand a bit to allow a better view of the speedometer, and said, “Zero miles per hour!” We both burst out laughing, and he started to accelerate. “Wait,” I said, and picked up my speed. “Five miles per hour,” he said checking his instruments. “Okay, here goes,” I said. “Ten miles per hour,” he laughed, and that little face in the back, which was probably thinking I looked a lot like a bumble bee in my winter running suit of yellow jersey and black tights, just grinned.

Since I was not even half way through my run, I had begun to worry that my burst of energy may have jeopardized my ability to make it back home under my own steam. The driver waved and continued his journey. As the car sped away, the sun was shining, I was shining and the little face, which was now pressed to the back window, was beaming. It was just another day in paradise. And some people ask why we choose to live in a place like this. Maybe Father Liebler and the Beatles had it right, “Love is all you need,” and maybe some of our insensitivities can be excused.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Saturday, September 7, 2002

Chicken Man

I was standing by the register admiring the latest set of baskets by Elsie Holiday, thinking that she is truly an exceptional artist, when Barry interrupted my thoughts. “Another turtle basket?” he asked. Elsie had come into the trading post several weeks ago to talk about basket designs, as she often does when she has weaver’s block. Since I also had a design block, we were not getting anywhere and Elsie left uninspired. About two weeks later she brought in a beautiful 14” diameter turtle basket with a ceremonial motif on the shell. A few weeks after that she was still uninspired, but the house payment was due so she made another turtle basket, this time three inches smaller. Since we already had two, I thought it best to finish the project with one more, making it a graduated set. Elsie agreed and off she went. I was looking at the final basket when Barry came by with his question.

From time to time Elsie and I will pull down several books and magazines from the trading post library to search for inspiration. We then commence to ooh and ahh over the art of other Southwest artists and brainstorm about how to translate it into new ideas for her work. She frequently laughs at my suggestions, but over the years this exercise has resulted in some really great baskets. Although I had little to do with this particular set, I was very pleased with how everything turned out. The ceremonial basket and turtle motifs are both very important to the Navajo people, so these baskets are very meaningful.

Several years ago, I was at Tobe Turpen’s trading post in Gallup New Mexico and spied a sensational Hopi turtle basket. I began to think that the basket would be even more interesting if the weaver had put a really unusual pattern on the turtle shell. Since I couldn’t get that thought out of my head, and since I felt guilty about asking for a photograph (so I could explain my idea to the local Navajo weavers) I bought the weaving and brought it back to the store. When the Navajo weavers brought in a really great geometric basket that seemed appropriate, I would ask them to make a second basket featuring a turtle with the same motif on its back. At first they thought I was crazy, but the idea caught on and they have made many very nice turtle baskets. The problem is that Barry has now seen so many turtle designs that he has begun to think of me as the Turtle Man. Something similar has happened with Barry because of all the folk art chickens we sell.

Shortly after we opened the trading post, Wilfred Yazzie came in with about eight roosters carved from cottonwood. The chickens were roughly hacked out and had raffia tails and stick legs. For some reason they really appealed to me, so I agreed to buy them for ten dollars each. Barry; Duke, my father; and Amer, my brother-in-law, who were all sitting on a counter on the west side of the room like three ravens on a fence, thought I had lost my mind and strenuously crowed their objections. By that time we had developed a rule that one person could overrule the objections of everyone else if he or she felt strongly that we should try a new item in the trading post, so I proceeded in spite of the protestations. I then put the bite on everyone who came into the store to buy one of the chickens, so that I wouldn’t look foolish. As it turns out, they sold very fast, and folk art chickens became a very big hit.

Soon after we bought the first batch, we were preparing for a wholesale show in Denver and decided to take some to the show to see how other shop owners would respond. Again they sold briskly, so we decided to keep buying them. That was one of the last shows I did, however, because shortly after that Cindy, our sister, informed me that I wasn’t a very good salesman and that I was banned from attending any more. As a result, Barry became responsible for selling all those chickens, and people began referring to him as the Chicken Man. At one point our friend Layne Miller was writing an article about folk art for the Salt Lake Tribune. Layne had used some of our Navajo folk art pieces in his feature, so he sent a copy to us for review. In the article Layne mentioned that Barry was frequently referred to as the Chicken Man. As you may guess, Barry was very worried that he would never shake the name if it was used in a major newspaper and threw a genuine fit. He called Layne and asked him to change the article. I later reassured Layne that it was okay, and Barry has been the Chicken Man ever since. I have offered to buy him a chicken outfit so he can stand outside the trading post making funny noises and doing strange dances. I believe it will bring a lot of people in. I have even told him that girls will think it is sexy, but he’s not buying it. I have reminded him that Charles Loloma, the hugely talented Hopi jeweler, was well known for giving all his female customers a hug and kiss when they bought something from him, and all he had was a funny haircut. You never know what may result from wearing that chicken suit. On second thought, maybe I will buy it for myself.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Sleep Deprivation

One of the most annoying things I am dealing with these days is lack of quality sleep. I am surely not alone in this respect; we baby boomers are reaching the age of modern maturity where rest is critical, and I for one don't like it. I get to sleep well enough; my wife and I have trained the kids to be in bed by 9:00 p.m. on school nights. Shock collars work wonders! It is not unusual for our family to be sound asleep by 10:00 p.m. We are early risers, however, and a 5:30 a.m. alarm is commonplace, so getting to sleep early is essential.

My problems usually begin sometime in the wee hours of morning, when strong urges to leave the comfort of my bed begin to creep into my consciousness. I move slowly, trying not to let myself wake fully. No lights are necessary, I have traversed this path so often that I know it by heart. Cats beware! A recent study I read in Lady's Home Journal says that if you turn on the lights in the middle of the night, it is much harder to get back to sleep. It is also said that if your cats nap in the middle of the hallway, they deserve to be stepped on.

I generally slip quietly back into bed, having managed not to upset the tranquil slumber of my housemates. I settle back into the warmth of the bed, hoping that I have not aroused my spouse or stimulated my own unnatural brain waves. My body relaxes and is ready to resume the rest cycle. But my mind has begun to flicker, a spark has ignited, and triggered a thought. I wouldn't mind if this were not a regular occurrence, but it happens with such frequency that I am losing patience.

Elsie Holiday

As you might guess, the trading post and its quirky nature is a central theme in these late night wake fests. Whether wondering and worrying if Steve has completely lost his mind or is just lactose intolerant; hoping beyond hope that Elsie Holiday won't sink our financial boat by flooding it with her incredible cutting edge artistry before the outside world recognizes her genius; or weighing the pros and cons of operating a business in the desolation and solitude of this desert oasis; I often ponder the consequences of what might happen if Bluff were "discovered". The thought of increased traffic and recognition to our tiny hamlet both excites and frightens me.

My most recent point of early morning consternation has been how to help Alicia Nelson achieve her goal of gaining recognition for the advanced quality of baskets she is weaving. This young artist has lived and worked in the shadow of her famous relatives, the Mary Holiday Black family, far too long. She has often shared her frustration that collectors have not noticed the efforts she has made to improve her weaving quality. I believe that she is producing the finest three rod Navajo baskets currently being woven. That fact, along with Alicia's push to create intricate, symmetrical and creative designs, places her in the same class of hungry competitor as Mr. T in Rocky III. Her commitment and passion demands attention.

Alicia Nelson

I know that it sounds silly to fuss, worry and lose sleep over such matters. The plain and simple truth is that when you live around and work with such fine people, you become concerned for their well-being. The more I try to ignore the wants and needs of others, the more they work their way into my sub-conscious thoughts, causing me missed hours of rest and relaxation It is a royal pain in the butooshka. The problem of sleepless nights for me has become a serious issue. My wife and children refuse to let me answer the phone after 10:00 p.m., because of my gruff nature and caustic remarks at being so rudely awakened. No problem, I have had the phone company install caller ID, so that those who wake me from an early bed time can be contacted later that same night when I can't get back to sleep. It gives me someone to share my misery with, and, just maybe, together we will solve some of my many dilemmas.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post